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Public Policy Report for 3 December 2012

Fiscal Cliff Negotiations Focus of Lame Duck

Now that the November elections are over, attention has finally turned to the looming fiscal cliff. Congressional leaders, President Obama, and their aides have been meeting to negotiate a potential deal to prevent tax increases and $109 billion in federal spending reductions that will commence in January.

Last week, Congressional Republicans swiftly rejected a plan offered by the Obama administration. The White House proposal would increase tax revenues by $1.6 trillion over a decade by allowing tax breaks for the wealthy to expire and by raising taxes on capital gains and dividend income. Notably, the proposal would also postpone for one year the automatic federal spending cuts scheduled to begin in January. Cuts, however, would be made to federal health care programs. Republican lawmakers denounced the framework for being too similar to President Obama’s budget proposal for 2013. Democrats responded by calling for the other party to produce a detailed plan of their own.

Despite the stalemate, leaders of both political parties have expressed a desire to prevent the looming tax hike on the middle class. A major sticking point, however, has been whether or not to allow the tax breaks to expire for wealthy Americans. Another point of contention is the expanding costs of entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid. Recently, some senior Democrats in the Senate have spoken out against a deal that would cut such social programs.

Although the negotiations are still in the early stages, some lawmakers anticipate that the short time frame before the fiscal cliff will necessitate a two-phase solution. A down payment of spending cuts could be agreed to and enacted during the lame duck, with larger, more encompassing fiscal reforms-including an overhaul of the tax system-to follow next year. This would have the effect of forestalling a fall off the fiscal cliff, and would help to alleviate fears in the business community that may already be negatively impacting the economy.

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House of Representatives Selects New Committee Leadership

House Republicans were busy last week determining who will lead the chamber’s twenty-five committees in the next Congress. Although some chairmen will retain their positions, changes are in store for at least one committee with jurisdiction over science.

Notably, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will have a new leader next year. Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) won a three-way race for the spot that will be vacated by Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), who is facing a term limit as chairman under his party’s rules. Smith currently chairs the Judiciary Committee, but is also facing a term limit. Smith has served on the science panel since he was first elected to Congress in 1986. The committee oversees non-defense federal research and development, including the National Science Foundation.

“As Chairman of the Science Committee, I will be an advocate for America’s innovators by promoting legislation that encourages scientific discoveries, space exploration, and the application of new technologies to expand our economy and create jobs for American workers,” said Rep. Smith in a statement. The congressman has been active in patent reform and space policy.

Among the committee leaders who will retain their posts is Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY). Rogers chairs the Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for allocating federal funding on an annual basis. In a statement, Rogers highlighted the committee’s efforts to reduce spending by almost $100 billion during his tenure over the last two years: “I look forward to continuing this important work on behalf of the American people, making the necessary strides to get the nation’s finances on track, reducing unnecessary government spending, and investing in important programs that will benefit the nation both now and in the future.”

Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) will also retain his position as chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over legislation that addresses energy production, management of oceans and public lands, and conservation of fish and wildlife. “By protecting and unlocking access to our public lands and resources, we can keep and create jobs here in America, create new sources of revenue, and protect the livelihoods of millions of Americans,” said Hastings. “We’ll continue to advance policies that boost offshore and onshore energy production; promote a balanced, multi-use approach to public land management; protect hydropower; expand water storage and supplies; encourage economic growth on tribal lands; protect wildlife and cut government red tape.”

Leadership of the Agriculture and Energy and Commerce Committees will also stay the same in the new Congress. Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) will serve a second term as chairman of the Agriculture Committee. Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) will also continue to chair the Energy and Commerce Committee.

House Democrats have not yet selected their committee leadership.

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Modified STEM Visa Bill Passes the House

Immigration reform for foreign graduates who earn advanced degrees in science took one step closer to realization on Friday. The House of Representatives passed a slightly modified version of a bill the chamber had failed to pass earlier this fall. HR 6429 passed with bipartisan support 245 to 139.

The bill would take 55,000 visas currently awarded lottery-style by the diversity immigrant program and redirect them to foreign graduates who have earned advanced science degrees at U.S. universities, thereby eliminating the diversity program. Preference would be given to those holding a doctoral degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) fields, and remaining visas would go to Master’s degree-holders.

An earlier version of the GOP House bill was rejected in September. It failed to pass with the necessary two-thirds majority (290 votes), despite picking up 30 Democrats for a total of 257 votes. The Rules Committee, however, decided only a simple majority was necessary for Friday’s vote, a threshold easily met.

New language in the bill would make it easier for family members of visa holders to move to the U.S. while they wait for green cards of their own, and would cut their present waiting period of two years in half.

“This is the first step forward toward doing something concrete and delivering results on immigration reform,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). Republicans claim to be serious about pursuing immigration changes in the wake of an election in which nearly three-quarters of Hispanic voters preferred President Obama to candidate Mitt Romney. Differences may arise in approach, however, as Democrats support bigger changes as part of a comprehensive system overhaul, and Republicans would rather take a “step-by-step” approach endorsed by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH).

The bill’s prospects in the Senate are weak, at least during the limited-time of the lame duck session. Moreover, Senate Democrats have expressed reservations about the details of the bill and about the GOP’s piecemeal approach to immigration reform. A White House official offered a similar statement: “we support expansion of STEM visas in general as part of a broader immigration reform, but any legislation that moves should be part of a balanced approach to fixing the immigration system, and this proposal does not meet that standard.”

There is broad support by universities and businesses for retaining more U.S. trained STEM scientists.

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University R&D Spending at Highest-Ever Levels in FY 2011

University spending on research and development (R&D) continued to increase from fiscal year (FY) 2010 to 2011, reaching $65 billion. This is an increase of 6.3 percent from FY 2010 (4.3 percent after adjusting for inflation), according to data from the National Science Foundation’s Higher Education Research and Development Survey. Much of the increase was due to $4.2 billion in federal funding provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Another $533 million in increased expenditures was due to an increase in the number of universities surveyed.

Among non-federal funding sources, only non-profit organizations and academic institutions themselves contributed more in FY 2011 than in FY 2010; funding by state and local government, business, and other sources remained almost static.

Of the broad academic categories surveyed, the life sciences accounted for the largest portion of spending, which increased 6.6 percent to $37.2 billion in FY 2011. The majority of that funding ($20.4 billion) went to medical fields. Engineering was responsible for the next largest portion of university R&D spending, showing a 7.7 percent increase to $10 billion. Environmental sciences increased to $3.2 billion (5.8 percent increase). Funding in non-science and engineering, including fields such as education, law, business, and communications, rose rapidly to $3.2 billion, a 10.5 percent increase.

Of the institutions surveyed, the top thirty universities, as far as R&D expenditures, accounted for 40.1 percent of total academic R&D spending. The universities comprising that group remained virtually unchanged from FY 2010 to FY 2011. Only the University of Southern California left the group, moving from position 28 to 31, and Harvard ascended into the top thirty institutions.

The full report and survey results can be found at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf13305/.

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Graduate Student Leaders Sought to Shape Science Policy

Applications are now being accepted for the 2013 AIBS Emerging Public Policy Leadership Award. This award recognizes graduate students in the biological sciences who have demonstrated initiative and leadership in science policy. Recipients receive first-hand experience at the interface of science and public policy.

Winners receive:

  • A trip to Washington, DC, to participate in the Biological and Ecological Sciences Coalition Congressional Visits Day, an annual event that brings scientists to the nation’s capital to advocate for federal investment in the biological sciences, with a primary focus on the National Science Foundation. The event will last for two days and will be held in late March or early April 2013. Domestic travel and hotel expenses will be paid for the winners.
  • Policy and communications training, and information on trends in federal science funding and the legislative process.
  • Meetings with Congressional policymakers to discuss the importance of federal investments in the biological sciences.
  • A 1-year AIBS membership, including a subscription to the journal BioScience and a copy of “Communicating Science: A Primer for Working with the Media.”
  • An award certificate and membership in the EPPLA alumni network.

The 2013 award is open to U.S. citizens enrolled in a graduate degree program in the biological sciences, science education, or a closely allied field. Applicants should have a demonstrated interest in and commitment to science policy and/or science education policy. Prior EPPLA winners and AIBS science policy interns/fellows are not eligible.

Applications are due by 5:00 PM Eastern Time on Monday, 28 January 2013. The award application can be downloaded at http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/eppla.html.

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Short Takes

  • The governor of Washington has ordered the state to take actions to address air and land-based pollution that cause ocean acidification. The action is in response to a report that outlines the risks to the state's shellfish aquaculture industry from dropping ocean pH. In addition to addressing pollutants that contribute to ocean acidification, a new research center will be established at the University of Washington, Seattle.

  • The National Research Council released Science for Environmental Protection: The Road Ahead (2012), a report that details future challenges the Environmental Protection Agency is likely to face in the coming decade. A few key findings include the need to understand complex feedback loops, which include the effects of numerous low-level stressors versus high-level exposures to individual stressors, and placing more emphasis on solutions-oriented applied research, in conjunction with traditional problem-identification research.

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Become an Advocate for Science: Join the AIBS Legislative Action Center

Quick, free, easy, effective, impactful! Join the AIBS Legislative Action Center today! (www.aibs.org/public-policy/legislativeactioncenter.html)

The AIBS Legislative Action Center is an online resource that allows biologists and science educators to quickly and effectively influence policy and public opinion. Each day lawmakers must make tough decisions about science policy. For example, what investments to make in federal research programs, how to conserve biodiversity, how to mitigate climate change, or under what circumstances to permit stem cell research. Scientists now have the opportunity to help elected officials understand these issues. These exciting new advocacy tools allows individuals to quickly and easily communicate with members of Congress, executive branch officials, and selected media outlets.

This new tool is made possible through contributions from the Society for the Study of Evolution, American Society for Limnology and Oceanography, and the Botanical Society of America.

AIBS and our partner organizations invite scientists and science educators to become policy advocates today. Simply go to http://capwiz.com/aibs/home/ to send a prepared letter or to sign up to receive periodic Action Alerts.

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