Programs: Science and Policy
Science and Technology in Congress
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Science Gets a Boost in House War Supplemental Bill, While 2009 Appropriations Process Gets Underway
On June 19, the House approved a second version of the 2008 supplemental appropriations bill, trimmed from an earlier version to win President Bush's support. The Senate approved the bill before leaving for the July 4th recess, and sent it to the President for his expected signature.
The bill contains $338 million in current-year funding for science programs--$150 million for the National Institutes of Health and $62.5 million each for NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Science. This is only about one-third of the $900 million figure for science that was featured in an earlier Senate version of the bill, but many science advocates are still pleased to see some acknowledgement in the supplemental of the importance of federal research and development (R&D). The money would, among other things, help restore the Fermi National Accelerator Lab, which was forced to lay off some employees due to cuts in the final FY 2008 budget. The House supplemental also includes $150 million for the Food and Drug Administration.
For FY 2009 appropriations, both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have divided the $1.013 trillion discretionary budget among the 12 appropriations bills and begun drafting individual bills. So far, congressional figures for NSF match the President’s request for a 13 percent increase, which would result in a budget of $6.85 billion. And the House and Senate subcommittees overseeing NIH have approved boosts of more than $1 billion for that agency, which would represent the largest increase since NIH completed its budget doubling in 2003. While the full Senate Appropriations Committee reported out the Labor HHS bill, the House failed to do so before the recess.
Meanwhile, the executive branch has upped its support for the FDA in FY09. Last month, FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach asked Congress for $275 million in additional agency funds to shore up food and drug inspections. He indicated that his request was coming “without regard to the competing priorities that the agency, the president, and their advisors must consider as budget submissions to the Congress are developed.” But now, on the heels of another food scare (salmonella in tomatoes), the White House has announced that it agrees with the suggested budget boost, which would represent an 18 percent jump from current levels.
A continually updated table on the status of R&D in the 2009 appropriations is available on the AAAS R&D web site.
--Kei Koizumi & Erin Heath
One thing seems evident on immigration this month: In the increasingly global 21st century, many members of Congress are interested in the role foreign citizens should play within the American workforce and higher education system.
On June 12, the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law held a hearing on “The Need for Green Cards for Highly Skilled Workers.” The chair of that subcommittee, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), has introduced three bills on the subject.
H.R.6039 would make it easier for foreign individuals who have completed graduate studies in the United States in a field of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) to become permanent residents. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has introduced a companion bill (S.3084) in the Senate. Witnesses at the Judiciary Committee hearing testified that the U.S. government should encourage students to stay in the country after completing their education instead of returning to other countries that compete with the United States economically.
Aiming to reduce the backlog of current applications, the other pieces of related legislation would make available employment-based immigrant visas from previous years that were allotted by the government but not granted. These visas have become unavailable primarily due to bureaucratic delays. One of the proposals (H.R.5921) would permit recapture of visas from the preceding year, while the other (H.R.5882) would make available un-granted visas back to the early nineties. The former bill, called the “High Skilled Per Country Level Elimination Act,” would also eliminate the per-country cap on employment-based immigrants and would attempt to divide the processes of providing visas based on employment and based on family sponsors. Witnesses such as Lee Colby, an electrical engineer and past chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Santa Clara Valley Section, testified how important it is for the United States to encourage highly-skilled workers not only to come to this country, but to stay and contribute to the American economy on a long-term basis.
Also this month, the House Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight and the House Education and Labor Committee’s Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning and Competitiveness held a joint hearing on "Restoring America's Leadership through Scholarships for Undergraduates from Developing Countries: The Uniting Students in America (USA) Proposal."
The $1-billion-a-year USA program, spearheaded by the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight, Rep. William Delahunt (D-MA), would bring 7,500 students annually from the developing world to study at American universities. The program aims to improve the reputation of the United States abroad by building individual relationships and exposing foreign citizens to what Delahunt called America’s greatest assets—its universities and colleges. At the hearing, Delahunt spoke on the significance of improving foreign opinion of the United States, referencing a report released by his subcommittee on June 11 entitled “The Decline in America’s Reputation: Why?” which is based on a series of 10 hearings on the subject.
However, some members expressed concern that the USA program, paired with H.R.6039, would give foreign nationals a road to U.S. citizenship, which would take away valuable opportunities from American citizens. Several witnesses testified that if the purpose of the USA program is to improve public opinion of America abroad, it is important that the program assure that its graduates return to their countries of origin.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) expressed his concern at the Judiciary hearing that Congress could be sending the message that only those with the highest degrees are welcome to stay in the United States, while the government would happily send other immigrants away—including those whose hard labor has contributed significantly to this country.
June was an active month for talk on climate change, both on and off Capitol Hill, although the center of attention was on the Senate floor, where the long-awaited Lieberman-Warner cap-and-trade bill (S.3036) got off to a rocky start on June 2. The bill, sponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Joseph Lieberman (I/D-CT), and John Warner (R-VA), was designed to gradually reduce the nation’s overall carbon emissions to about 70 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. It would put forth a market-based cap-and-trade scheme similar to the one currently used in the European Union for carbon emissions and in the United States for sulfur dioxide emissions.
Unfortunately for its proponents, the bill reached the Senate floor without sufficient support and a cloture vote to limit debate failed to achieve the necessary 60-vote majority, effectively ending action on the bill at least until next year. This happened less than a week after the bill’s move to the Senate floor. While the bill saw opposition from both sides of the aisle, most came from Republicans, who voiced their disapproval of the bill’s potential impacts on the U.S. economy at a time of record energy prices. They even forced a nine-hour reading of the bill to protest Democrats’ inaction on nominations of federal judges.
However quickly it may have happened, the end of debate on the Lieberman-Warner bill was not the end of a push for action on climate change in Congress. Boxer said soon after the cloture vote that she intends to confer with the critics among her Senate colleagues, including several Democrats, to evaluate the changes needed to construct legislation on climate change that would stand a chance in the Senate next year. The focus will be on addressing eight principles that a group of opposing Senators say will make the climate change bill more palatable.
In the House, action on climate change arrived in the form of two bills. One was from Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), Chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, who seeks an even more aggressive reduction in carbon emissions than that of the Lieberman-Warner plan. Markey’s bill (H.R.6186), entitled the “Investing in Climate Action and Protection Act,” or the “iCAP Act” for short, would reduce emissions to 85 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. The bill would also auction a greater percentage of the emissions permits than the Lieberman-Warner plan, investing the proceeds in developing low-carbon energy technology and reimbursing low-income consumers for increased energy costs.
A more aggressive plan came from an unlikely place, the House Ways and Means Committee, in a bill sponsored by Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) that caps emissions at 348 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050, about 94 percent below 2005 levels. However, while the bill (H.R.6316) has already picked up 77 cosponsors, according to its authors it is unlikely that it will see markup before 2009, as they desire more time to ensure that the bill can withstand the type of criticism seen by prior climate change bills.
To evaluate the merits of the many proposals in Congress and elsewhere to control carbon emissions, the House Energy and Commerce Committee on June 19 held a hearing that included testimony from policy analysts, environmental advocates, and industry leaders. As expected, cap-and-trade plans such as Markey’s and that of Lieberman-Warner were not favored by industry representaives testifying before the committee, the presidents of United Auto Workers and the National Mining Association. They did, however, express more positive views about a bill (S.1766) from Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) that includes a “safety valve” that will limit excessive costs for polluters in meeting their emissions targets.
Witnesses who favored strong action on climate change by the federal government included a representative of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who framed the climate change debate in terms of the costs of mitigation compared to inaction, as well as the Business Council on Sustainable Energy, who discussed the matter in a similar context and cited the potential for economic growth in the United States from development of new energy technology. The hearing also included a representative of the religious community, who spoke about the Evangelical Lutheran Church’s position that taking strong action on climate change based on the recommendations of scientists is a moral responsibility and that bills such as the Lieberman-Warner plan did not impose a cap on greenhouse gases stringent enough to meet those criteria.
While much of the discussion at the hearing focused on the potential costs and benefits of various forms of carbon reduction, such as carbon sequestration, more advanced nuclear power plants, and renewable energy, there was also mention of some of the elements of greenhouse gas control policy that have already been implemented. Specifically, witnesses were questioned about the prospects for the registry of greenhouse gas emissions that Congress directed the EPA to create in the 2008 appropriations bill. While the agency has until September to release its draft proposal, committee members wanted to know about the legal authority that guides the establishment of the program-- whether it falls strictly under provisions of the Clean Air Act or under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, which is the guiding authority for the agency’s Toxics Release Inventory. Committee members also asked about the feasibility of carbon sequestration, specifically the legal ramifications associated with injecting carbon dioxide into the ground given the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA that the EPA may treat the gas as a pollutant.
Questions such as these, which suggest that existing laws will likely be applied to aspects of climate change policy, also arose off the Hill, where discussion has continued about the Interior Department’s addition of the polar bear to the endangered species list. Conservation organizations and climate change activists contend that the listing requires any action necessary to protect the bears’ habitat in the Arctic, which is threatened as sea ice continues to melt. But Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne was careful to establish after the listing that his decision should not be used to justify U.S. policy on climate change, and is only a recognition that the bears are threatened. This explanation was met with criticism from several conservation groups, notably the Center for Biological Diversity, which has challenged the Department’s handling of endangered species in the past and hoped that the polar bear listing would serve as a charismatic symbol for wildlife threatened by climate change.
The debate will likely continue over whether and under what circumstances existing federal regulations apply to climate-altering activities and may result in the courts’ continued review of such regulations. In the case of Massachusetts v. EPA, the Court ruled in favor of the state, holding that the EPA’s refusal to permit state regulation of carbon emissions from motor vehicles represented a failure of the agency to protect public health and welfare, since the people of Massachusetts face an especially significant potential for damages from a rising sea level. The impacts of carbon dioxide emissions may be less clear-cut than, for example, asthma from particulate emissions or acid rain from sulfur dioxide, but the Supreme Court nonetheless viewed such emissions as a threat to human health. Still, the use of existing laws for regulating climate-altering activities for which they were not originally written has some members of the policy community concerned. So far though, it appears unlikely that coal-fired power plants in Georgia will have to sequester their carbon emissions in order to protect polar bear habitat in Alaska, but many parties contend that such a question may be asked of the courts before long.
In light of a forthcoming House-Senate conference on a consumer safety bill, two panels of experts came before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection to offer expertise significant to an amendment that would add phthalates to a list of banned additives in children’s toys. Members of this class of chemicals are often used as softening agents in plastics, and are thus commonly used in consumer products, especially toys. The bill, the Consumer Product Safety Modernization Act (HR 4040), would update product standards and establish new toy safety regulations, as well as reform the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The proposed amendment regarding phthalates is included in the version passed by the Senate (S 2663), but not in the House version.
In addition to phthalates, the hearing also addressed bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in epoxy resins and to harden polycarbonate plastics for protective equipment. Though legislation regarding BPA is not a part of HR 4040, Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) this month proposed the Ban Poisonous Additives Act (HR 6228), which would prohibit usage of the chemical in food containers. At the House hearing, subcommittee members and witnesses alike disagreed both on the threats of the additives and the degrees of regulation, if any, that should be put in place regarding their use. Witnesses did agree, however, that most Americans are regularly exposed to both phthalates and BPA.
Some committee members, including Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Darlene Hooley (D-OR), and Diana DeGette (D-CO), were concerned about health risks associated with phthalates, citing research that links their exposure to fetuses and infants with developmental abnormalities. While scientists have disputed these risks, Hooley believes that the chemicals should be regulated, and introduced the Children’s Chemical Risk Reduction Act (HR 4030) in 2007 to ban common phthalates. Reproductive effects are among the potential risks for infants—“phthalate syndrome” is characterized by abnormal male reproductive development, and BPA is an estrogen mimic that interacts with the endocrine system.
Based on these risks, the European Union and 14 other countries took precautionary action and banned six common phthalates in 1999. Testifying at the House hearing, some experts argued that the United States should follow suit; California and Washington have already instated phthalate bans, and many companies worldwide have voluntarily ceased using the chemicals. Despite their examples, Ranking Member Ed Whitfield (R-KY) and Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-TX) were unsure how US companies would respond to a ban, arguing that it may be an economic drain to research and would implement alternative chemicals. One witness also suggested that the EU’s ban on phthalates was largely political and not scientifically based.
Other witnesses debated the evidence, disagreeing as to whether the chemicals pose enough of a threat to warrant regulations. One expert from CPSC stated that phthalates are not a health risk, citing the Commission’s extensive studies on phthalates in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) toys, which indicated no harmful effects unless an infant sucked on the toy for 75 minutes daily. Another witness noted the lack of human studies in BPA research, while another said that removing BPA, which prevents hard plastics from shattering, may be more dangerous than leaving it in. Further witnesses countered by saying that exposure to both chemicals should be considered as a part of aggregate exposures to these and other chemicals; in reality--as opposed to the model used in the CPSC study--the chemicals may accumulate in the body and interact with other toxins, such as pesticides.
Since BPA is also found in food packaging, its regulation in this context falls under FDA jurisdiction. An FDA witness said that the FDA has no regulations on either chemical because exposure levels from food packaging are far below toxic levels. He stressed, though, that the FDA is conducting active research in this area, with the intent of implementing regulations if threats are found.
The Senate bill, which was passed on March 6, does include an amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) banning the same six types of phthalates banned by the EU. Some committee members noted that with the bill’s forthcoming conference, consideration of the amendment is time-sensitive, and they questioned whether the hearing’s last-minute occurrence might cause the amendment to be passed without thorough inspection.
-- Patricia Satkiewicz and Alexis Walker
Quick status reports to keep you up to date on recent S&T bills and hearings.
The House voted 407-6 to reauthorize H.R. 5940, the National Nanotechnology Initiative [see STC April, May 2008]. The bill seeks to strengthen the federal focus on environmental, health, and safety research of nanomaterials.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee’s terrorism panel held a hearing on the national security implications of genetic technologies. Speakers called for nations to strive for consensus on the issue and perhaps form an agreement like the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
On June 18, the House passed the NASA Authorization Act (HR 6063) by a vote of 409-15, which would authorize $19.2 billion for NASA in FY 2009. Though the bill enjoys wide bipartisan support, White House officials have issued a Statement of Administration Policy opposing the bill. Included in their objections are the bill’s mandates for three additional shuttle launches, which they believe would interfere with the scheduled retirement of the shuttle program in 2010, and the authorization of funds above the Administration’s FY 2009 budget request of $17.6 billion. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved a similar bill June 24.
NIH Finalizes Plans to Revamp Peer-Review
After a year-long process and thousands of public comments, NIH has announced its plan to reform its peer review system over the next 18 months. Among the changes are a reduction in the size of grant applications, a modification of the scoring system, an increase in flexibility and compensation for reviewers, and an explicit commitment to early-stage or new-to-NIH investigators and high-risk/high-reward research. The peer review announcement came during a June meeting of the Advisory Committee to the Director of NIH.
DoD Issues BAA for Minerva Project. Last week the Pentagon issued a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) seeking white papers and full proposals for a new program to fund academic social science research that meets specific military interests. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the $50-million Minerva Research Initiative in a speech before the Association of American Universities in April. The BAA is requesting papers and proposals on five topics (see BAA link above for specifics). White papers are due by July 25 and proposals by Oct. 3.
- The International Space Station and the Space Shuttle (RL33568)
Nanotechnology: A Policy Primer (RL34511)
An Assessment of Small Business Innovation Research Program at the Department of Energy (ISBN-10: 0-309-11412-8)
Genetically Engineered Organisms, Wildlife, and Habitat: A Workshop Summary (ISBN-10: 0-309-12085-3)
Improving the Quality of Cancer Clinical Trials: Workshop Summary (ISBN-10: 0-309-11668-6)
Antivirals for Pandemic Influenza: Guidance on Developing a Distribution and Dispensing Program (ISBN-10: 0-309-11866-2)
Innovation in Global Industries: U.S. Firms Competing in a New World (ISBN-10: 0-309-11631-7)
H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment
"The State of the Nation’s Ecosystems 2008"
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
“ARISE: Advancing Research In Science and Engineering”
International Energy Agency (IEA)
"Energy Technology Perspectives 2008"
U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP)
"Scientific Assessment of the Effects of Global Climate Change on the United States"
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
"Critical Upgrade: Enhanced Capacity for White House Science and Technology Policymaking"
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AAAS Geospatial Analysis Confirms Destruction of Towns, Houses in Eastern Ethiopia
A report released this month by the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project as part of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program has helped confirm evidence that the Ethiopian military has attacked civilians and burned towns and villages in eight locations across the remote Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia. The AAAS report provides crucial corroboration for a separate report recently released by Human Rights Watch following a four-month investigation, which also used eyewitness accounts to demonstrate the attacks on tens of thousands of ethnic-Somali Muslims living in the East African country.
AAAS Congressional Briefing: U.S. President's 2009 Biodefense Budget Proposal Calls for Overall Growth, But Some Cuts
The AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy and the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Congress, along with the Congressional R&D Caucus, held a briefing this month on the biodefense funding contained in the President’s budget proposal for the upcoming year. Speakers at the event noted that despite overall growth, the proposal calls for cuts to hospital preparedness as well as state and local capacity-building efforts.
New AAAS Patent Reform Resource
Check out the new policy brief on patent reform available via the Center for Science, Technology and Congress website—and look for more new policy briefs coming soon!
A new study demonstrates that a region of the brain linked to processing emotions is activated as humans weigh fairness to an individual against the benefit to a whole group. For example, whether to deliver 80 pounds of food to an entire population stricken by famine versus 95 pounds to only half of the population. The report investigates the neural underpinnings of such choices--a topic that is highly relevant to understanding how people perceive welfare economics or international aid policies. The study suggests that differences in emotional processing may play a larger role in decisions to favor equity than do differences in processing the degree of overall good that would be achieved through various choices. Hsu, Ming, et al., “The Right and the Good: Distributive Justice and Neural Encoding of Equity and Efficiency,” Science, 23 May 2008; Vol. 320. no. 5879, pp. 1092-1095.