October 15th, 2012, by Abby Benson  

Week in Review, or Nobel Calling

Well, I wasn’t one of the lucky ones woken up at O’Dark-thirty last week to be informed they had won the Nobel Prize, but several U.S. government-funded scientists were! Congratulations go out to Robert J. Lefkowitz of Duke University and Brian K. Kobilka of Stanford University for their Nobel Prize in chemistry and to David Wineland of NIST (and the University of Colorado Boulder!) for his Nobel Prize in physics. All three of these scientists conducted basic research supported by research agencies such as NIST and NIH, yet another reminder of how supporting a robust research enterprise can lead to amazing results.

U.S. research agencies are currently operating under the terms of a continuing resolution (CR) passed at the end of September that will keep the government running for the first six months of FY 2013. In response to passage of this CR, the White House issued a memo to all agencies and departments indicating that “agencies should continue normal spending and operations.” At least one research agency has provided official guidance on how their spending rate will be affected by the CR. The NIH posted a notice that it would fund some research grants at about 90% of their previous levels. While holding back on spending is pretty standard operating procedure under a CR, rumors abound that agencies will be holding back even more than usual to ensure that if major spending cuts are enacted in January (e.g., sequestration), they have more of a cushion in place to protect ongoing activities.

The White House memo also reminded feds that “the Administration continues to urge Congress to pass a balanced package of deficit reduction that would replace the potential sequestration on January 2, 2013.” Although Congress is still in recess, I reported last week on a few groups of lawmakers that are working to avoid sequestration. Another group of bipartisan Senators (three Republicans, three Democrats) who are especially concerned about national security recently wrote to Senate leadership outlining their concerns about how the cuts would impact not only defense spending, but also non-defense spending such as research funding supported by the NIH. The letter states “we are committed to working together to help forge a balanced bipartisan deficit reduction package to avoid damage to our national security, important domestic priorities, and our economy.” The use of the word “balanced” in this letter is significant as in Washington-speak, it has come to mean a solution that considers not just pending cuts, but also revenues.

The latest estimate of sequestration’s potential impact has come from Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA), the soon-to-retire Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee. Dicks released a report last week outlining the impacts of sequestration to a number of government programs, including NSF, DOE Office of Science, NASA, and the NIH. The American Institute of Physics (AIP) has posted a useful summary of the research-related estimates here.

Also of Note

Research. Before the Senate began their recess, Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced an updated version of the Digital Accountability and Transparency (DATA) Act (S.1222). The bill aims to improve transparency and accountability of government spending. If you’re wondering why this matters for research, just think of the thousands of grants being administered at research agencies across the government. An earlier version of this bill placed special requirements on research agencies that some viewed as burdensome and duplicative of existing systems. According to the Association of American Universities (AAU), this most recent version largely removes those requirements and calls on the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to work with the research community when drafting new standards.

SpacePolicyOnline reports on a recent phenomenon of scientific societies choosing to cancel or downsize their annual meetings due to lack of government participation. These meetings are normally attended by government employees who either conduct research, fund research, or otherwise participate in the science policy process. The government has been cracking down, however, on government employees attending conferences after a recent scandal at the General Services Administration (GSA). Many science-related organizations have expressed concern about this, as it hampers the collaboration process so critical to the scientific community.

Health. The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues issued a report called Privacy and Progress in Whole Genome Sequencing. The report examines privacy concerns that may become more prevalent as full genome sequencing becomes more common. The report also offers recommendations on how to ensure privacy while not stifling innovative research. You can read more about this from Science here.

Science also reports on the latest development in the long-running Sherley v. Sebelius case which examines whether the government should fund stem-cell related research. The plaintiffs of this case, who lost a recent appeal in August, have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider their case.

Patent Reform. A group of six higher education associations submitted comments to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in response to public notice of its implementation of several provisions of the recent patent reform bill, the America Invents Act. These comments focus on the shift from a First-to-Invent patent system to a First-Inventor-To-File patent system, and particularly as it affects universities’ ability to broadly disseminate knowledge resulting from research.

NOAA. Yet another report has emerged on the state of NOAA’s satellite program. The NOAA Science Advisory Board’s Satellite Task Force issued this latest report, which outlines both technical and financial challenges  faced by the program.  This follows two recent reports on the same topic, one issued by an Independent Review Team and another by the Department of Commerce Inspector General.

In Print

AIP posted a summary of a recent Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on Five Years of the America COMPETES Act, and a great summary of recent deliberations on a series of STEM immigration bills.

What’s on Deck

Tuesday (10/16)

Thursday (10/18)



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