Week in Review, or Dissing the Death Star
When I left you last, the country was breathing a collective sigh of relief that the President and Congress had reached an 11th hour deal to avoid the “fiscal cliff.” The “fiscal cliff” referred to the simultaneous tax hikes and spending cuts (a.k.a. sequestration) that were supposed to begin on January 1st if Congress didn’t act. The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, which was signed by the President on January 1st, successfully protected the middle class from tax hikes and reduced the sequester by $24 billion in FY 2103, but ultimately postponed the implementation of the across-the-board spending cuts by just two months, setting in motion another epic budget battle as we head towards March. March will be a pivotal month as sequestration, the need to raise the debt limit to protect the country from default, the expiration of the FY 2013 continuing resolution, and the submission of the FY 2014 budget to Congress (delayed from the normal submission date in early February) are all scheduled to collide. While the President has stated strongly that he doesn’t want raising the debt limit to serve as a pawn in a political game, Republicans have generally expressed their desire to not raise the debt limit without significant spending cuts (cue sequestration!). As you can see from this handy countdown clock, we are already over a month away from sequestration and already hearing talks of a potential government shutdown and/or default, but it’s hard to tell how much of this is rhetoric and where the negotiations will ultimately lead-hopefully not over another cliff!
For now, we can rest assured that the White House does have the looming federal deficit on its mind, as evidenced in a recent response to a petition “to secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star in 2016.” Among the reasons not to move forward with this ambitious Star Wars-themed project, the White House indicated that “The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We’re working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.”
This week, the city of Washington is gearing up for the Presidential Inauguration, scheduled to take place a week from today. The Senate will remain in recess until then, and while the House is technically in session this week, most work will remain behind the scenes as the Chamber gears up for the 113th session.
Also of Note
Appointments. Over the last few weeks, President Obama has nominated several leaders for his second term Cabinet who would have jurisdiction over science programs. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) has been nominated to replace current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) has been nominated to replace current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. It appears that Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the NIH, will stay for President Obama’s second term, along with Secretary Shinseki of the Veteran’s Administration. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced she will step down in the next few months, but a replacement has not been identified. Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner also announced he will step down before the end of the month, and President Obama has nominated his current Chief of Staff, Jack Lew, to replace him.
Climate. The President’s Science Advisor, John Holdren, and the NOAA administrator, Jane Lubchenco, drafted a joint blog post highlighting the newly released National Climate Assessment (NCA), “a 400-page synthesis of scientists’ current understanding of climate change and its impacts in the United States” conducted by a committee of independent advisors. Although the blog was quick to note that the report didn’t include any policy recommendations, it will surely serve as a reference during the increasing debate surrounding climate change.
Energy. The DOE announced the winners of its latest massive energy innovation hub award. The Critical Materials Institute, led by Ames Laboratory in Iowa, will be awarded up to $120 million over five years to “initially focus on developing solutions to shortages for five rare earth elements as well as lithium and tellurium, and the technologies — including electric vehicle motors and batteries, wind turbines, energy-efficient lighting and thin-film solar cells — that use these critical materials.”
Congress. Senate Committee assignments have been finalized, you can view the Republican list here and the Democrat list here. Although the House hasn’t issued an official list of committee assignments, many of them should be locked down shortly if they haven’t been already.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the new Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee which oversees NSF, NASA, NOAA, NIST, and DOE Office of Science, announced that committee’s subcommittee chairmanships here. This list includes several freshman, and splits up the former Energy & Environment subcommittee into two distinct subcommittees. Science’s coverage of the assignments drew a pointed response from Chairman Smith.
Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), the Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, also announced its subcommittee chairs last week. Most chairs of the subcommittees overseeing major science programs remained in place, except for a new chair for Labor-HHS-Education, which oversees NIH. Science also provided coverage of this subcommittee chair choice.
Senator John Rockefeller (D-WV), a five-term Senator and current chair of Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee-counterpart of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee for research programs-announced that he will not run for re-election in 2014. This will open up the top spot (or ranking member depending on the outcome of the 2014 election) on this important committee for science.
Defense. In the face of the pending sequester described above, the Deputy Secretary of the DoD issued a memo outlining steps the agency should take in the coming months to manage the fiscal uncertainty. This is the most in-depth guidance I’ve seen on how agencies should manage the run-up to sequestration, but I would imagine we’ll see more in the coming weeks.
Health. The Supreme Court last week decided not to consider an appeal of a recent decision allowing the federal government to continue funding research using human embryonic stem cells. This marks the end of a long-running case in which two NIH-funded scientists sued the federal government for allowing NIH to fund research using these stem cells. Francis Collins, Director of the NIH, expressed pleasure in his response to the ruling, saying it would “enable[s] NIH to continue conducting and funding stem cell research, following the strict ethical guidelines put in place in 2009.”
The NIH released a summary of their extramural research program in FY 2012, including statistics on the number of grant applications received and awarded.
Patent. On January 3rd, the President signed into law HR 6621, a bill that would provide technical amendments to the major patent reform bill, the America Invents Act. You can read a summary of the bill’s provision in this recent Patently-O blog post.
As you can imagine, the “fiscal cliff” deal received widespread media coverage, here are links to two responses focused on the research side from Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
The student group Stand With Science, founded at MIT, is still seeking signatures on a new letter aimed at telling Congress “how important it is to choose cuts carefully and avoid ruining our future while attempting to save it.”
The Huffington Post reports on a letter from a group of researchers to Vice President’s Biden gun commission, which was established in the wake of the recent school shooting in Newtown, CT. This letter encourages the commission to seek the lifting of a current ban restricting the NIH and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from conducting research in support of gun control.
The American Institute of Physics FYI blog has posted a nice summary of major science policy events in 2012.
MIT’s Technology Review created a great infographic entitled Where Do U.S. R&D Dollars Go. This graphic looks at federal funding of research by agency since 1962, with an overlay of which political parties were in control at the time.
What’s on Deck
Things will be quiet on Capitol Hill this week as the city gears up for the Presidential Inauguration.