April 29th, 2013, by Abby Benson  

Week in Review, or Picking on Peer Review

As the impacts of sequestration continue to emerge, mounting airport delays due to the across-the-board spending cuts spurred Congress into action last week. The Senate and House both passed bills (S.853/H.R. 1765) which would give the Department of Transportation additional flexibility to move funding between accounts and restore some of the furloughs (days off without pay) affecting the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) air traffic controllers. Despite repeated calls by the President to replace sequester all together, rather than take a piecemeal approach, it appears likely the President will sign the bill.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) made a broader attempt to stop sequestration by introducing a bill (S.788) which would replace the sequester for the rest of FY 2013 using funding allocated for declining military operations in Afghanistan. Senate Republicans offered a counter approach (S.799) which would increase the flexibility of agencies to implement the cuts. Neither of these measures made progress, but I doubt this is the last we’ll see of Congressional efforts to mitigate the effects of sequestration. Unfortunately for federally-funded researchers, the nature of the grant-making process means that the short- and long-term impacts of sequestration won’t be felt as immediately (or as publicly) as air delays, but the full impact of the cuts on the nation’s innovation system may not be truly understood for years to come.

Also last week, recent efforts in Congress to question the long-established process of peer review escalated when the Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), released an early draft of legislation entitled the High Quality Research Act. As reported by Science, this legislation would apparently alter the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) mission of supporting fundamental research by requiring the Director to certify that all funded grants are “in the interest of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science,” as well as “groundbreaking” and not duplicative of other federally-funded research.  This certification requirement broadens a similar requirement recently included in the FY 2013 continuing resolution (CR) specific to political science research funded by the NSF.

Following in this theme, Chairman Smith (R-X) sent a letter to the NSF stating “based on my review of NSF-funded studies, I have concerns regarding some grants approved by the Foundation and how closely they adhere to the NSF’s “intellectual merits” guideline.” The letter then asks for more information on five separate research projects funded by the agency. This inquiry drew a pointed response from the Committee’s Ranking Member, Rep. Eddie Bernice-Johnson (D-TX). Rep. Johnson’s letter to the Chairman states this “is the first step on a path that would destroy the merit-based review process at NSF and intrudes political pressure into what is widely viewed as the most effective and creative process for awarding research funds in the world.”

Congress will be in recess next week, returning the week of May 6th.

Also of Note

Appointments. The Senate confirmed Sylvia Matthews Burwell as the new head of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the President nominated Howard Shelanski to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) within OMB. Shelanski currently serves as the director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Economics.

Appropriations. During appropriations season, it is common for members of Congress to sign “Dear Colleague” letters, addressed to appropriators, outlining  support for various federal programs. This year, bipartisan letters in support of National Institutes of Health (NIH) circulated in both the House and Senate, with 168 Representatives signing the House letter and 52 Senators signing Senate letter.  A letter in support of the NSF also circulated in the House, receiving 95 signatures of support.

Defense. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) released a new strategic framework last week entitled Driving Technological Surprise: DARPA’s Mission in  Changing World.  DefenseNews reports on remarks made by the agency’s Director in concert with the release, including a statement on the effects of sequestration on the agency.

Education. The President hosted his third Science Fair at the White House last week, featuring over 100 students from 40 states. The Science Fair was held in several rooms and outdoor spaces at the White House and featured projects from students in middle and high school.

Energy. Five directors of DOE’s large-scale Energy Innovation Hubs visited Washington, DC to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. During their visit, they held an event featuring the Deputy Secretary of Energy during which they highlighted the research being conducted at each Hub.

Health. As reported back in February, the NIH has been seeking input from the public on ways to improve the biomedical workforce. Both the Association of American Universities (AAU), which represents the country’s major research universities, and the Association of American Medical Colleges submitted comments to the NIH in response to this RFI.

Innovation. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently released a presentation made by the Director, Doug Elmendorf, at a National Bureau of Economic Research Conference on Innovation Policy and the Economy entitled What Changes in Federal Policy Might Spur Innovation. The presentation recommends increasing or redirecting federal funding for R&D and education, as well as reforming policies related to taxes, patents, high-skilled immigration, and regulations.

Research.  As reported back in February, the White House recently released a draft Policy for Institutional Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC). This draft has been open to comments, and the AAU and the Council on Government Relations (COGR), both of which represent the country’s major research institutions, submitted comments on the draft policy.

The House passed the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act (H.R. 527) which would restore sales from the federal helium reserve, heading off some concern that this valuable gas would not be available to researchers and industries that rely on it. The Senate is expected to consider a companion bill soon. Read more here from Science.

Space. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released a new report, Space Weather Observing Systems: Current Capabilities and Requirements for the Next Decade, which provides “an assessment of our Nation’s capacity to monitor and forecast potentially harmful space weather aimed at ensuring these critical capabilities continue to be supported and maintained.”

In Print

Robert Frodeman writes for ScienceProgress writes about The ‘Broader Impacts’ of Sequestration on Science, with a particular focus on cuts to NASA’S Education and Public Outreach (EPO) program.

AIP’s FYI blog posted summaries of recent hearings on the FY 2014 President’s budget, including a Senate Appropriations Hearing on the Department of Commerce request and a House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing on the President’s overall research requests.

SpacePolicyOnline reports on recent hearings on the FY 2014 request for NASA, including a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing and a House  Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee hearing. Both hearings featured NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

What’s on Deck

Congress is in recess this week, so there will be no hearings held on Capitol Hill.


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