Programs: Science and Policy
Science and Technology in Congress
In recent months, appropriators have steadily churned through the 12 spending bills required to establish the full budget, with appropriations committees in both chambers nearly finished with their work. However, the appropriations process appears to be coming to a close until the spring, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) announced they had reached an agreement on a continuing resolution to fund the government through March 2013. Such an agreement became necessary after Reid and an aide working for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) said neither chamber was likely to act on further spending bills before the election. The agreement also settles a running dispute between the parties over total FY 2013 spending. Last year's debt ceiling agreement established a discretionary spending cap of $1.047 trillion. While the Administration and Senate Democrats have abided by this agreed limit, the House GOP passed a budget resolution that capped overall spending at $1.028 trillion. The lower cap has drawn the ire of Democrats, and the White House has consistently promised to veto any spending bill that abides by the lower cap.
Even as this dispute appears settled for the time being, Congress remains at an impasse on negotiations to avert the sequestration, though not without lack of trying. Active negotiations are underway to avert the across-the-board 10 percent cuts to defense and 8 percent cuts to nondefense spending, and a number of Republicans have voiced flexibility on the issue of revenue increases as a part of the package. Even so, support for deep cuts remains strong in some quarters, particularly for nondefense discretionary spending (NDD) – a budget category that includes virtually all federal spending outside of defense and entitlements, and virtually all nondefense R&D. NDD spending was notably targeted for cuts in the House-passed budget resolution, and similar proposals to protect defense spending at the expense of nondefense spending have been attached as riders to other pieces of legislation. To combat these attempted cuts, approximately 3,000 organizations from across the public interest spectrum – including AAAS – recently sent a letter to Congress asking for a responsible deficit reduction approach that does not include further cuts to NDD, which has already been cut by an average of 10 percent over the past few years. AAAS has estimated that shifting the planned sequester entirely onto nondefense cuts could result in a 27 percent reduction in nondefense R&D over the next decade.
Pressure also remains intense on the defense side, as defense contractors, who have long stated the sequestration will force them to terminate thousands of employees, have said they will be required under federal law to issue layoff notices by November 2, 60 days before the sequestration takes effect – and just a few days before the elections. Reports by the National Association of Manufacturers and the Aerospace Industry Association have placed sequester-induced job losses at 1-2 million. Congress has also approved legislation that requires the Administration and Pentagon to explain exactly how the across-the-board cuts would be allocated, as the Office of Management and Budget begins consultations with the agencies on these questions.
Even as the overall picture remains cloudy, there nevertheless has been some progress on spending bills on the House side. A House Appropriations Subcommittee passed the Labor/Health and Human Services spending bill on July 18, which would keep NIH funding flat for FY 2013, similar to the Senate version of the bill. The House bill would also terminate the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, mandate a 90/10 split for extramural/intramural research and a 55 percent split for basic research, and reduce the maximum salaries institutions can charge to NIH.
On June 29, the full House voted 261-163 to approve the FY 2013 Transportation and Housing and Urban Development spending bill. According to AAAS estimates, the Department of Transportation would receive approximately $1 billion for R&D funding in FY 2013 under the bill, an increase of $70 million or 7.4 percent above FY 2012 levels, though less than the President's request. The Federal Highway Administration would receive most of the R&D boost sought by the Administration, reaching $494 million, 20.2 percent higher than in FY 2012.
On June 28, the House Appropriations Committee approved its FY 2013 Interior/Environment appropriations bill, which would slash R&D funding at the Department of Interior, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Forest Service. According to AAAS estimates, the bill would fund Interior R&D at approximately $740 million, which is $122 million, or 14.2 percent, below the President’s budget request and $56 million, or 7.1 percent, below FY 2012 levels. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) R&D would be cut by 14.4 percent below the President’s request and 8.0 percent below FY 2012. EPA funding would be reduced further, by 10.2 percent, below the President’s request and 8.9 percent below FY 2012. The cut is almost entirely for EPA Science and Technology, and the committee also passed several amendments to limit EPA's ability to regulate green house gases emissions and other toxins.
On June 19, the House Appropriations Committee approved its FY 2013 Agriculture funding bill (HR. 5973). According to AAAS estimates, the bill would cut USDA R&D by 4.5 percent below the President's request and 5.9 percent below FY 2012, though part of these apparent cuts is attributable to the end of the Biomass R&D program, which is up for reauthorization for FY 2013 in the current Farm Bill. While the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) would be cut, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) would receive a boost of 4.6 percent above current year funding. The bill generally falls short of both the President's request and the current Senate version of the bill (S. 2375), which passed committee April 26 and awaits floor action.
-- Matt Hourihan and Kelly Anderson
The House held two controversial hearings on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on June 6 addressing the impacts of recent rules on the oil and gas industries. The Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Energy and Power invited several stakeholders to express their concerns about EPA enforcement in Region 6, which includes Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas (webcast). The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Environment’s hearing focused on the costs and benefits of recent EPA rules, featuring witnesses from industry groups (webcast).
House Republicans used the hearings to criticize the EPA, saying it interferes with state regulations, unfairly burdens coal and other fossil fuel industries, and creates standards based on faulty science. At the Energy Committee hearing, Barry Smitherton, chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, discussed the Range Resources case. In December 2010, the EPA issued an emergency endangerment order to the Range Resources Company against the advice of the commission, which serves as a state regulatory agency. It was later discovered that Range Resources was not responsible for the groundwater pollution that the EPA had detected, and the order was lifted, but only after the company spent millions of dollars defending itself, according to Smitherton.
At the Science Committee hearing, Tom Wolf, executive director of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce Energy Council, said the New Source Performance Standards for carbon dioxide emissions worked for natural gas plants but were impossible for coal-powered plants to meet with the currently available technology. He said the large leap in standards would create a roadblock for coal producers, instead of the intended incentive for innovation. At the same hearing, Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD), and Michael Honeycutt, chief toxicologist at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, discussed what they saw as EPA’s overestimation of the benefits conferred by its rules.
Democrats on both subcommittees criticized the hearings’ intentions. Energy and Environment Subcommittee Ranking Member Brad Miller (D-NC) called the Science Committee’s hearing “one more forum for specific big industries to air their grievances about the EPA.” Energy Committee Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA) called his colleagues’ opening statements “part of the fact-free, anti-EPA rhetoric of the Republicans.”
-- Kavya Devarakonda
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works’ Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety held a hearing on June 19 titled “Review of Recent Environmental Protection Agency Air Standards for Hydraulically Fractured Natural Gas Wells and Oil and Natural Gas Storage,” which addressed the New Source Performance Standards (NPSS) and National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) for the oil and gas sector rule (PDF file) that was finalized on April 18.
The rule includes the first ever national standards on air pollution from hydraulically fractured gas wells. Members of the oil and gas industry have criticized the new rule for its potential impact on domestic natural gas production.
During the hearing, opening statements and comments fell along party lines. Subcommittee Chairman Thomas Carper (D-DE) praised the EPA for addressing the lack of hydraulic fracturing regulations in most states, while Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) insisted that air pollution is a national issue since it does not follow state boundaries. On the other side, Subcommittee Ranking Member John Barrasso (R-WY) criticized the Obama administration for working against the natural gas industry, despite an “all-of-the-above” energy rhetoric. Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK), whose amendment (S.J.Res. 37) to stop a recent EPA rule on mercury and air toxics standards was voted down in the Senate on June 20, brought up recent EPA controversies and advocated for leaving regulation of fractured wells to the states.
The first panel featured Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation at EPA, who said the recent rule on air emissions was achievable, would result in cost savings, would reduce air pollution, and would not slow natural gas production. She also described changes made to the final version of the rule in response to industry feedback, which included the introduction of a transition period before the use of reduced emission completions (also known as “green completions”) would be required, and the addition of a sub-category of wells in low pressure areas. These wells are not required to use green completions since the new technology is not cost effective in those cases.
On the second panel, Fred Krupp, a member of the Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board Natural Gas Subcommittee, outlined the subcommittee’s findings that oil and natural gas production results in the emission of toxic air pollutants (like carcinogenic benzene), ground-level ozone (like volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides), and methane, which he said causes global warming at a rate 72 times that of carbon dioxide.
John Corra and William Allison, representatives of state regulatory agencies in Wyoming and Colorado, respectively, highlighted the current environmental regulations in their states, which EPA used as the basis for the new rule. Both also stressed the importance of allowing states to be flexible during implementation, since the use of green completions is not technologically or economically feasible at some sites.
President and CEO of Colorado Oil & Gas Association Tisha Schuller expressed her concerns that EPA overestimated the benefits of the rule by overestimating the emissions from fractured wells and overestimating the cost savings from the rule, while underestimating the costs from new equipment and regulatory and administrative requirements. Darren Smith, the environmental manager at Devon Energy Corporation, suggested that EPA overestimated the current emissions from fractured wells.
Carper ended the hearing by hailing the rule as “common sense.” Although the witnesses agreed that the rule needs some tweaks before it is fully implemented in 2015, the debate overall seemed to be, as McCarthy said, a question of whether the rule was “good or very good.”
-- Kavya Devarakonda
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing on June 20, titled “Risks, Opportunities, and Oversight of Commercial Space.” Following the successful launch and International Space Station (ISS) docking of the unmanned SpaceX Dragon shuttle, the hearing focused on the roles of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and Congress as the commercial space industry matures.
The NASA Commercial Crew and Cargo Program was founded in 2006 in anticipation of the 2011 retirement of the space shuttle. The program supports the development of space vehicles by private companies through awards granted by Space Act Agreements. Due to funding concerns, the commercial crew program will be down-selecting to 2.5 companies next year from the four that are currently supported.
Until a commercial crew shuttle is developed, NASA must pay the Russian government around $60 million per seat on the Soyuz shuttle to allow American astronauts and supplies to reach the ISS. The exchange violates Section 6 of the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000 (INA) (Public Law No. 106-178), which bans the U.S. government from paying Russia in connection with the ISS unless the president determines that Russia is taking steps to prevent the transfer of weapons of mass destruction and other weapons technology to Iran. An exemption was granted by Congress in 2005 (Public Law No. 110-329) and extended until 2016 (Public Law No. 109-112).
According to William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA, who testified at the hearing, the first commercial crew launch is expected to take place in 2017 if funding for the program follows the president’s request and increases after fiscal year 2013. This projected launch date will require Congress to extend the amendment to the INA or NASA will not be able to operate the ISS in the intervening year, Gerstenmaier said.
Michael Gold, director of D.C. Operations and Business Growth for Bigelow Aerospace, and Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation issues at the Government Accountability Office, criticized other regulations, including the limitations on U.S. launch technology exports in the International Traffic in Arms Regulation, which they believe are harming American global competitiveness.
However, as the commercial space industry moves forward, the issue of safety regulations is still very much in question. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (Public Law No. 112-95), which was signed into law in February, prohibits the FAA from regulating the commercial space industry until October 2015. While Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, expressed his appreciation for the ban, which he said would allow the industry to mature before regulations limit technical approaches, Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV) disapproved of the moratorium in his opening statement. Pamela Melroy, senior technical advisor in the Office of Commercial Space Transportation at the FAA, said once the deadline passes, the development of regulatory framework for occupant safety will be a long process, especially as she plans to include significant public comment periods.
NASA and FAA have agreed that the FAA will license for public safety, while NASA will be responsible for crew safety and mission assurance. Currently, the FAA authorizes and oversees launch, reentry, and the operation of launch and reentry sites. The agency requires operators to purchase insurance, but provides third-party indemnification for catastrophic costs above $1.5 billion. Lopez-Alegria warned that if the indemnification program was allowed to expire, those costs would either be passed on to customers in the form of raised prices or absorbed by companies, which is not sustainable.
-- Kavya Devarakonda
Kirk Odom served 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He was convicted based on a mistaken victim identification and faulty forensics. Thirty years later, DNA testing on a hair found at the crime scene, as well as stains on pillowcases and the victim’s clothing, proved that he was innocent. Odom was the third person in three years to have his conviction overturned because of unreliable hair analyses in Washington, DC.
Nationwide, there have been 292 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States since 1989—and according to The Innocence Project, a nonprofit that helps wrongly convicted prisoners, about half of those wrongful convictions were due at least in part to poor forensic science.
Last year, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced The Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act (S. 132), which would establish an Office of Forensic Science in the Department of Justice that would be responsible for creating and implementing uniform standards and enforcing regulations, as well as a Forensic Science Board that would determine research priorities. (The placement of such an office in DOJ runs counter to recommendations in the National Academies report, that only a new and independent organization could be tasked with regulating the forensic community, under the justification that no existing government agency has a relevant mission statement or the appropriate resources to take on this task.) The bill would also require that any labs or individuals receiving federal funding be accredited based on standards outlined by the new Board and Office of Forensic Science. This bill is currently being considered by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.
Then in July, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV) introduced The Forensic Science and Standards Act of 2012 (S. 3378), which would direct the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop standards for forensic scientists and establish a Forensic Science Advisory Committee—composed of research scientists, forensic scientists, and members of the legal and law enforcement communities—to be chaired by the Director of NIST and the Attorney General. Rockefeller’s bill would also establish a National Forensic Science Coordinating Office in the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a research strategy and provide grant money for forensic science research centers. S. 3378 is currently being reviewed by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) introduced a companion bill, H.R. 6106, which has been referred to the House Committees on Science, Space, and Technology, as well as the Judiciary.
It is the hope of these lawmakers that nationally recognized standards and a strong peer review process (much like the one that helps to regulate the rest of the scientific community) will result in better research and more accurate analyses, leading to fewer wrongful convictions.
-- Sara Spizzirri
Quick status reports to keep you up to date on recent S&T bills and hearings.
The two-year highway bill passed both chambers on June 29 and is the first long-term highway legislation to be enacted since 2005. In a compromise, House Republicans agreed to drop both a demand for the Keystone XL oil pipeline project and their efforts to block the EPA from regulating ash emitted by coal-fired power plants, while the Senate agreed to cut funding for bike lanes and pedestrian safety initiatives by requiring that those projects compete for funding with all other transportation funds, and agreed to streamline environmental review processes for infrastructure projects. The bill also provides funding to universities and research centers, and perhaps most notably, directs that 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines from the 2010 Gulf oil spill go toward the restoration of communities in Gulf States.
On July 9, the Food and Drug Safety and Innovation Act (S. 3187), which expands the Food and Drug Administration’s user fees program to fund quicker domestic drug reviews and more inspections of international drug manufacturing facilities, was signed into law.
On June 6, Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO) introduced the International Science and Technology Cooperation (ISTC) Act (H.R. 5916), which would establish an interagency committee, under the direction of the National Science and Technology Council, to coordinate and improve the efficiency of U.S. research efforts. AAAS issued a letter of support for the legislation and was quoted in a press release by Carnahan. The bipartisan legislation is also supported by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs; Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX); who serves as ranking member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology; along with several other Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. The bill was originally introduced in 2009 and passed the U.S. House of Representatives with overwhelming bipartisan support by a vote of 341-52.
On July 17 the Obama Administration announced plans to create a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Master Teacher Corps to reward and recognize exceptional math and science teachers, based on recommendations made in a 2010 report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Funding for the program is dependent on Congress appropriating the full $5 billion FY 2013 request for the Department of Education’s Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching (RESPECT) project, a prospect which appears unlikely (background here). However, $100 million from the department’s budget for the current fiscal year will go to the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) to launch the Master Teacher Corps this year.
- The Small Business Administration has proposed new rules for the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program that are causing a stir among industry advocates. The new rules could eliminate a requirement that grant applicants be majority-owned by an American resident or company. Instead they propose that applicants must primarily operate in the U.S. or “make a significant contribution to the U.S. economy,” without an American ownership requirement. There are also concerns that the new proposal could create a loophole that opens the door for large companies – in addition to small businesses – to receive grants.
The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues is seeking public comment on “the ethical issues associated with the development of medical countermeasures for children” in public health emergencies. The Commission has been asked by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to prepare a “thorough review” of the issues. Comments are due August 27.
On June 26 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in favor of the EPA’s legal authority to regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions under the Clean Air Act. The ruling (found here) also reaffirms EPA’s earlier science-based, endangerment finding that GHGs pose a danger to the public health. In 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the EPA had the authority to regulate GHG emissions under the Clean Air Act if the agency found that such gases posed a public health threat. EPA’s 2009 endangerment finding met that requirement, but an appeal was filed in the D.C. Circuit Court arguing against EPA’s legal authority under the Clean Air Act and the science underpinning that authority. Both the earlier Supreme Court and the recent Court of Appeals ruling will make it difficult to overturn EPA’s authority to continue to regulate GHG emissions.
The National Institutes of Health’s Biomedical Workforce Working Group spent a year examining available data on the number and fate of biomedical researchers through different stages of their careers, and in June it released its report. The recommendations of this subcommittee of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director include providing supplements to training grants that help graduate students prepare for alternatives to academic careers, capping how long a graduate student can receive NIH funding, and shifting graduate student funding out of investigators’ grants to training grants and fellowships. Frustrated by the lack of comprehensive data, the panel also recommends that NIH require institutions receiving NIH funds to report on the career outcomes of both graduate students and postdoc researchers, and that it work more closely with other federal agencies to create and coordinate data collection efforts. A second report, this one from the Diversity in Biomedical Research Working Group of the ACD, was released the same day. Its recommendations include increasing attention to tracking, reporting, and evaluating the outcomes of trainee activities; exploring efforts to determine and combat real or perceived biases in the NIH peer review system; piloting implicit bias and diversity awareness training for reviewers and program officers; and appointing a chief diversity officer for NIH.
- The Global Climate Change Initiative (GCCI): Budget Authority and Request, FY2010-FY2013 (R41845)
- The Obama Administration's Proposal to Establish a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (R42625)
- Cybersecurity: Authoritative Reports and Resources (R42507)
- Climate Change and Existing Law: A Survey of Legal Issues Past, Present, and Future (R42613)
- How FDA Approves Drugs and Regulates Their Safety and Effectiveness (R41983)
- Environmental Regulation and Agriculture (R41622)
- Federal Research and Development Funding: FY2013 (R42410)
- MANAGING CRITICAL ISOTOPES: DOE's Isotope Program Needs Better Planning for Setting Prices and Managing Production Risks (GAO-12-591)
- COMMERCIAL SPACE TRANSPORTATION: Industry Trends, Government Challenges, and International Competitiveness Issues (GAO-12-836T)
- NANOTECHNOLOGY: Improved Performance Information Needed for Environmental, Health, and Safety Research (GAO-12-427)
- Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation's Prosperity and Security
- Meeting Critical Laboratory Needs for Animal Agriculture: Examination of Three Options
- Under Threat: Sequestration’s Impact on Nondefense Jobs and Services
- Sen. Tom Harkin, Chairman, Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies
- Capturing Domestic Competitive Advantage in Advanced Manufacturing
- President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST)
- The Economic Contribution of University/Nonprofit Inventions in the United States: 1996-2010
- Biotechnology Industry Organization
MAAAS held two Capitol Hill briefings this summer as part of a series on neuroscience funded by the Dana Foundation. Details about the events, which focused on early brain development and mental health in early adulthood, can be found on the AAAS Office of Government Relations website. A third briefing in the series is scheduled to take place on September 12.
“The publication in this issue of the research paper Airborne Transmission of Influenza A/H5N1 Virus Between Ferrets, plus its newer companion The Potential for Respiratory Droplet–Transmissible A/H5N1 Influenza Virus to Evolve in a Mammalian Host, marks the end of more than 8 months of widely reported controversy over whether some of the data now freely accessible should be withheld in the public interest. … As a result, people worldwide are now much more aware of the potential threat that this virus, commonly known as ‘bird flu,’ poses to humanity. And the open publication of new data concerning the potential of H5N1 to convert directly to a form that can be transferred through the air between ferrets will motivate many more policy-makers and scientists to work to reduce the likelihood that this virus will evolve to cause a pandemic.” –Bruce Alberts, Editor-in-Chief, Science
See the June 22 special issue on H5N1 here.