Bills In Brief

Bridges vol. 42, December 2014 / Bills In Brief

By Sara Spizzirri, Keizra Mecklai, Erin Heath, Daniel Osborn, Matt Hourihan from AAAS, and Richard M. Jones from AIP

This BRIDGES Bills in Brief is brought to you, in part, by the “Science and Technology in Congress” newsletter, a publication of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Congress, covering the latest science-related news on Capitol Hill. The FYI Bulletin from the American Institute for Physics (AIP) supplemented the content.

Future Uncertainties for COMPETES Legislation

The America COMPETES Act first became law in 2007 to promote innovation and boost American global competitiveness. It was reauthorized once in 2010 and is once again up for reauthorization.

There are currently four COMPETES bills: The House Republicans initially split the legislation into two separate bills (the FIRST Act and the EINSTEIN Act), while the House Democrats and the Senate proposed their own versions. Hence, the outlook for the most recent iterations of the bill is uncertain.

The Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act (FIRST Act, H.R. 4186) proposed a two-year reauthorization (FY 2014-FY 2015) for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), with both agencies receiving a 1.5 percent increase in FY 2015. The Enabling Innovation for Science, Technology, and Energy in America Act (EINSTEIN Act) reauthorized the Department of Energy’s Office of Science (OSC) but not the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) that was created under the 2007 COMPETES bill.

Meanwhile, the House Democrats and the Senate opted to introduce versions that propose four-year reauthorizations at higher funding levels, from FY 2015 to FY 2019. However, these do differ in a few key areas.

The House Democrats’ bill (H.R. 4159) reauthorizes NSF, NIST, and DOE OSC, and focuses on four goals: supporting research, fostering innovation, creating jobs, and improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. In order to support research and foster innovation, the bill would increase funding for the three agencies by 5 percent year by year, and would reauthorize the National Nanotechnology Initiative, ARPA-E, a Regional Innovation Program, and Innovation Hubs run by DOE. It would also establish the Federal Acceleration of State Technology Commercialization program in order to “advance United States productivity and global competitiveness by accelerating commercialization of innovative technology by leveraging Federal support for State commercialization efforts” (see section 505 of the bill).

Efforts to support and improve STEM education and the STEM workforce would include establishing an ARPA-ED to invest in R&D for educational technology, providing grants for students who receive STEM-related undergraduate degrees, and increasing diversity (namely, participation by women and minorities) in STEM fields.

The Senate bill (S. 2757) reauthorizes NSF and NIST for FY 2015-FY 2019, but excludes DOE, which is not within the jurisdiction of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. The bill would provide annual increases for both agencies at 6.7 percent that would result in significant growth. Other goals include: improving STEM education, supporting NSF’s social, behavioral, and economic sciences (SBE) directorate, reducing administrative burdens for government researchers, maintaining attendance at science conferences, and supporting NSF’s merit review process.

Like the House Democrats’ bill, S. 2757 prioritizes STEM education and the STEM workforce; the bill also directs the National Science and Technology Council to collect input from various stakeholders on the five-year STEM education reorganization that was approved in the 2010 COMPETES Act.

The bill would also establish a subcommittee to review administrative burdens on federally funded researchers (section 103) and issue a report containing recommendations for improving efficiency in the grant submission and review processes. This is likely a response to findings of a recent National Science Board report, which found that grant applicants often spend more than 40 percent of their work time on administrative tasks.

Budget News:
Congress Passes Omnibus

The Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015 (H.R. 83) was approved by the U.S. Senate on December 13 by a 56-40 vote, after the House of Representatives passed the bill by a 219-206 vote. The bill provides $1.1 trillion in total spending, including base discretionary spending, war spending, and Ebola response, and funds almost all federal agencies for the remainder of FY 2015. The exception is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is only funded through February so that the next Congress can devise a legislative response to the President's executive immigration actions.

According to current AAAS estimates, base federal R&D would rise to $137.6 billion, a 1.7 percent increase above FY 2014 levels (though this estimate may be adjusted once DHS receives a final appropriation). Including war-related R&D and R&D related to the Ebola response in the calculation – the latter of which amounts to roughly $500 million or more – total federal R&D would increase by 2.2 percent over FY 2014 levels.

As usual, some agencies fared much better than others. NASA dodged cuts proposed by the Administration, receiving $18 billion, which is more than $500 million above the request and 2.1 percent above FY 2014. Funding for Defense basic research will reach a 30-year high under the omnibus bill at $2.3 billion, growing by 5.1 percent above FY 2014. The National Science Foundation (NSF) also received a 2.4 percent increase to $7.3 billion.

Among slower-growing agencies, the National Institutes of Health only received a 0.5 percent increase in the base budget, totaling $30.3 billion, although brain-related research funding grew somewhat faster. The agency also received $238 million for Ebola research. Funding at the Department of Energy's Office of Science remained flat from FY 2014 levels at $5.1 billion. Visit the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program website for more details.

In Brief  

On September 18, the R&D tax credit was passed by the US House of Representatives as part of a larger bill tackling several tax policy changes for small businesses, medical devices, and other areas. The bill would make the credit permanent, but passage faces an uphill battle in the Senate.

New legislation was introduced to facilitate funding increases for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), however, the potential for NIH budget growth is currently limited by the tight cap on discretionary spending. The bill, dubbed the Accelerating Biomedical Research Act, would adjust the spending cap to allow for increased NIH appropriations of up to 10 percent above the current year estimate for two years, and up to five percent thereafter.

The House passed, by voice vote, the bipartisan Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act of 2014 (H.R. 2996), establishing a Network for Manufacturing Innovation Program within the National Institute of Standards and Technology with the goal of improving US manufacturing competitiveness.

The House of Representatives passed the American Super Computing Leadership Act of 2014 (H.R. 2495) and the Tsunami Warning, Education, and Research Act (H.R. 5309). The supercomputing bill would require that the Department of Energy develop, through a competitive merit review process, a program for partnerships between national laboratories, industry, and universities for exascale supercomputing research. The tsunami legislation would reauthorize funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation and Tsunami Research programs.

Agency Updates

The Office of Science and Technology Policy released its policy for institutional oversight of life sciences dual-use research of concern (DURC). The policy details the necessary oversight to identify DURC and implement risk mitigation measures. The policy covers specific types of experiments, such as enhancing the harmful consequences of an agent or toxin for 15 pathogens and toxins, including avian influenza virus. Accompanying the new policy are two complementary documents: A Companion Guide of Tools for the Identification, Assessment, Management, and Responsible Communication of Dual Use Research of Concern and Implementation of the US Government Policy for Institutional Oversight of Life Sciences DURC: Case Studies.

The White House released a National Strategy on Combating Antibiotic- Resistant Bacteria that outlines five goals for combating the spread of resistant bacteria. The goals of the strategy are to: 1) slow the emergence and prevention of their spread; 2) strengthen efforts to identify cases of antibiotic resistance; 3) advance the development and use of rapid diagnostic tests; 4) accelerate basic and applied research of new antibiotics, therapeutics, and vaccines; and 5) improve international collaboration. President Obama signed an Executive Order directing the enactment of the strategy as well as creating a new Task Force for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria to be cochaired by the Secretaries of Defense, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services. As part of the overall strategy, the Administration is directing the National Institutes of Health and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to cosponsor a $20 million prize for the development of a rapid point-of-care diagnostic test to assist healthcare workers. Timed to coincide with the release of the White House strategy, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued its report on Combating Antibiotic Resistance. The report outlines a series of recommendations for the federal government that parallel many of the actions outlined in the White House National Strategy. The PCAST report assesses antibiotic resistance within human health care, including prescription overuse; animal agriculture, including promoting animal growth; drug development; and surveillance and response. 

NASA has selected two commercial companies for contracts to transport US astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Under the contracts to be awarded to Boeing Corporation and to Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX), the companies will complete NASA certification for transporting people to low earth orbit, then start conducting crewed missions to the ISS.

The United States government has announced increased efforts to combat the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa. The response includes a Joint Force Command headquartered in Liberia to provide regional command and control support to US military activities and facilitate coordination with US government and international relief efforts, along with an increase in aid workers, training, and materials being supplied. At the same time, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution that declared the spread of the virus a threat to international peace and security, calling for countries to send more healthcare workers and supplies to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. 

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