December 17th, 2012, by Abby Benson  

Week in Review, or Hoping for Some Holidays

During a week that would normally involve winding down for the holidays, negotiations to avoid the “fiscal cliff” appear to be heating up. Late last week, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) indicated that he would be willing to consider some tax hikes on the wealthy, a concession for Republicans on an issue that President Obama has stood fast on. While this offer did signal some wiggle room for Republicans, it didn’t provide enough revenues to satisfy the White House and was accompanied by the significant caveat that the President offer entitlement reforms in exchange, which he has yet to do. While both parties have insisted they remain far apart on reaching a deal, they have also emphasized that the communication lines running up and down Pennsylvania Avenue remain open.

In addition to the debate on taxes versus entitlement reform, a few outstanding questions still remain. For example, will a deal to avoid the fiscal cliff include a raising of the debt limit? Republicans have said no, while the President has indicated his preference to include that in a larger deal. Also, what will happen with sequestration, the massive spending cuts scheduled to kick in the first week of January? None of the discussions last week explicitly addressed either of these issues, the latter of which looms large for the research community. The Association of American Universities (AAU) has posted a summary here of the many op-eds, editorials, and reports on the impact that sequestration would have on university research and the nation’s innovation system.

With just one week to go before Christmas, it is hard to envision how lawmakers will be able to reach a deal, get it passed by Congress, and delivered to the President’s desk for his signature before the New Year. It is likely that if the President and Speaker reach a deal by the end of the week, members of Congress will head home on Friday only to return on the 26th to pass legislation to make it official. It’s not looking like such a joyous time of year for White House and Congressional officials as they essentially skip their holiday vacations in the hopes of avoiding a trip off the cliff.

In addition to the fiscal cliff, both chambers this week will be focused on a $60.4 billion supplemental appropriations package to assist the recovery from Super Storm Sandy. While the package mostly addresses the immediate needs of impacted communities, the Administration’s letter accompanying the supplemental acknowledged the need for science to play a role in better preparing for and responding to climate change, stating “to build a more resilient Nation prepared to face both current and future challenges, including a changing climate, Federal agencies in partnership with State, local, and tribal officials, and the science community, should inform all plans for recovery and rebuilding to address the increased risk and vulnerabilities of extreme weather, sea level rise, and coastal flooding.”

Also of Note

Appointments. Jane Lubchenco, the current National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator, announced that she will step down from that post in February 2013. Science reports on the message Dr. Lubchenco sent to NOAA employees announcing her departure.

Richard Nakamura, a psychologist and longtime administrator at the NIH, has been named director of the agency’s Center for Scientific Review, which oversees the NIH’s peer review system. Nakamura has served as Acting Director of the Center–which manages over 80,000 grant applications per year–since fall 2011.

The Senate Democrats officially released their committee assignments for the 113th Congress. While some committees in the House have informally announced their new Republican and Democratic members, there is no official word yet from either side on what the final committee assignments will be.

Education. Last week in Washington, computer science advocates celebrated CSEd week, a “highly distributed celebration of the impact of computing and the need for computer science education.” The White House blogged about this event, highlighting several Administration efforts to improve computer science education in the U.S.

Energy. Senator Bingaman (D-NM), the retiring Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, gave a farewell floor speech last week where he highlighted some milestones from his 30-year tenure in the Senate. On science, the Senator stated, “we have seen some progress in maintaining and advancing the science and engineering in this country.  We successfully found ways to better integrate the strengths of our defense laboratories through technology transfer and partnering.  We’ve also seen some important increases in funding for research, particularly in support of the life sciences.  And that growth has stagnated in recent years.  It needs to continue and be replenished.  But as we continue that support, we must also recognize the need to do more to support research and development in the physical sciences and in engineering.” The Senator also praised the establishment of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), as an “effort to identify and fund breakthrough science and engineering initiatives to meet our energy challenges holds great promise for our nation and for the entire world.”

Patent. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), outgoing Chair of the House Judiciary committee and incoming Chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, introduced H.R. 6621, a bill to correct and improve certain provisions of the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act and title 35, United States Code.” Dennis Crouch’s Patently-O blog summarizes the provisions in the bill, which would modify the major patent reform legislation enacted in 2011.

Research. Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL), along with Reps. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) and Alan Nunnelee (R-MS) announced the formation of a new House Science & National Labs Caucus. According to the announcement, this caucus will  “concentrate on reinforcing federal investment in research and the national laboratories, as well as raise awareness in and out of Congress about the role they play in long-term economic growth.”

The Center for American Progress issued a new report entitled The High Return on Investment for Publicly Funded Research. The report argues that “To continue leading the world in innovation and welcoming the businesses and industries of the future, the United States must continue its long history of robust investments in research and development in the increasingly interconnected fields of physical sciences, computational sciences, life sciences, social sciences, and engineering.”

Space. NASA posted a year-end summary of its 2012 accomplishments, including landing a rover on Mars, advancing commercial spaceflight, conducting new research aboard the International Space Station, furthering space technology programs, and finding evidence of ice on mercury.

In Print

Science Progress asks, Why Mustn’t We Let Fundamental Science Fall Off the Cliff? Ask Siri. In this piece, Drew Baden uses the iPhone 5 as one example of the strong ties between federally funded research and the nation’s economic growth.

SpacePolicyOnline reports on a recent House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing on The Future of NASA: Perspectives on Strategic Vision for America’s Space Program.

The Director of NIH, Francis Collins, blogs about PubMed Central, a “free archive of biomedical and life science journal literature at the NIH’s National Library of Medicine.”

In a joint Nature and Scientific American piece, Nsikan Akpan writes about how the “Fiscal cliff” threatens to impede biomedical discoveries.

Fox News reports on a new scientific paper that finds Biomedical Funding Encourages ‘Mediocrity,’ Ignores ‘critical thinkers.’

A new poll released by advocacy group Research!America indicates that “A Majority of Americans Doubt Congress and White House Can Resolve Budget Problems and Avoid Fiscal Cliff.”

What’s on Deck

Not much happening on the research front on Capitol Hill this week (except, of course, trying to avert the fiscal cliff).

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