The U.S. Senate is preparing to consider a package of three appropriations bills to fund a diverse array of federal programs ranging from affordable housing to fisheries management to basic research. The minibus, as the package of bills is called, includes annual funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research programs.
The top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) noted the difficultly of abiding by the spending caps when formulating the bill. “Balancing the important yet competing interests of law enforcement, terrorism prevention, research, scientific advancement and U.S. competitiveness is always a difficult task and I believe this bill strikes that balance.”
The minibus is expected to be debated under an open amendment process, which could be key to getting Republican support for the spending package. “What we want is amendments germane to the bill, so the bills that we’re moving next week are not foreign policy bills, they’re bread-and-butter bills,” said Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD).
One program that is expected to gain unwanted attention is social science research at NSF. Since Senators are able to offer any relevant amendment to the bill, many in the science policy community anticipate that amendments will be offered to restrict funding for social science research. During House debate of the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies 2015 Appropriations Act, numerous amendments were offered, including one to strip $15 million from NSF’s Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate.
In 2013, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) successfully inserted a provision in a spending bill to restrict NSF’s ability to fund political science research unless the NSF director certifies that the project promotes “national security or the economic interests of the United States.”
The Senate proposes to fund NSF at the Obama administration’s requested level of $7.3 billion, which is $83 million more than fiscal year (FY) 2014. The Senate bill would provide 140 more competitive grants from NSF in 2015, according to a summary prepared by the Senate Appropriations Committee. Although the bill would increase funding in absolute terms, the Senate bill would provide $155 million less than a spending bill passed by the House of Representatives in May. The biggest difference between the two bills is research funding, as the House bill would provide 2.4 percent more funding than the Senate bill. Education programs at NSF, however, would fair slightly better under the Senate proposal.
The two chambers also differ in their proposals for NOAA. The Senate bill would provide $5.4 billion, $105 million above the current level. The House proposes to flat fund the agency at $5.3 billion.
Funding for agricultural research would increase at the USDA if the Senate bill were enacted. Intramural research would increase by $17 million for the Agricultural Research Service. The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, USDA’s competitively awarded extramural research program, would receive $325 million, an increase of $8.5 million above FY 2014.
Last week, the House of Representatives began debate on its version of the agriculture spending bill, but stopped consideration of the legislation in the wake of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) primary election defeat. The chamber is not expected to return to debate of the bill until later this summer. According to CQ news service, a congressional aide said: “the problem is that GOP leadership, particularly the whipping operations, is focused on party leadership elections and not the Agriculture bill.”
The White House has issued a veto threat against the House agriculture appropriations bill. Among the concerns are a failure to fund three new research institutes on pollinator health, antibiotic resistance, and advanced manufacturing.
Last week, the House Science Committee abruptly halted consideration of a bill to reauthorize research programs at the Department of Energy. Democrats on the Science Committee objected to what they considered to be a short time frame between the bill being made public and the markup. The draft bill was released five days before the markup.
The minority also raised concerns about low spending levels. The bill would reauthorize many Department of Energy research programs at levels lower than those approved by the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee for fiscal year 2015. The bill would cut the authorized funding level for the Biological and Environmental Research division by more than $100 million in 2015 and ask the Government Accountability Office to identify “duplicative” climate research programs for elimination. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) would lose $40 million from its funding authorization.
“We’re being asked to make tough decisions about how to allocate billions of taxpayers’ dollars after having less than three business days to consider the bill’s provisions, let alone talk with constituents and stakeholders,” said Representative Eric Swalwell (D-CA), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Energy.
When Representative Swalwell objected to waiving the reading of the bill, which is a usual procedure at a committee markup, Chairwoman Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) elected to end the markup.
Representative Lummis stated that 15 oversight hearings had already been held on the issue and that this was the time for Democrats to offer amendments on the bill. “We extended this courtesy to the minority party to engage in the amendment process to make this bill their bill too,” she said.
Although it is not known what the committee leadership will do next, it is possible for Republicans to schedule a full committee markup.
On 12 June 2014, the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Subcommittee on Research and Technology held a joint hearing on “Reducing the Administrative Workload for Federally Funded Research.” The hearing examined ways to reduce the administrative paperwork required for research funded by federal grants.
Oversight Subcommittee Chair Paul Broun (R-GA) opened the hearing by citing a survey result that researchers spend 42 percent of their time meeting administrative requirements. Calling that figure “an extraordinarily high number,” Broun expressed interest in finding ways to “reduce the administrative workload for federally funded research without compromising the federal responsibility to ensure tax money is spent in the manner intended.” Oversight Subcommittee Ranking Member Dan Maffei (D-NY) agreed with Broun on the need to limit the paperwork burden, but stressed the negative effects of budget cuts causing scientists to increase the “number of times you apply for the same grant” just to get funding.
Witnesses testifying before the panel were Dr. Arthur Bienenstock, Chairman of the Task Force on Administrative Burden at the National Science Board; Dr. Susan Wyatt Sedwick, Chair of the Federal Demonstration Partnership and Director of the Office of Sponsored Projects at the University of Texas at Austin; Dr. Gina Lee-Glauser, Vice President for Research at Syracuse University Office of Research; and Allison Lerner, Inspector General at the National Science Foundation (NSF).
In her opening statement, Lerner called for “a dialogue between the grantee and the Inspector General (IG) communities” to discuss the expectations and documentation needs of both sides. She also highlighted effort reports as an area that was often singled out for criticism. While admitting that the current effort reporting system is not perfect, Lerner cited the fact that 36% of research funding goes to salaries as a reason why the time documentation should be improved, but not scrapped.
Bienenstock in particular supported Lerner’s suggestion of greater dialogue between universities and auditors, stating that “universities do fear audits.” Bienenstock agreed that the reporting regulations do “serve a real function,” but that current proposal submissions to NSF contain a lot of information that is “not critical.” Picking up on this point, Lee-Glauser argued that a major contributor to the problem has been NSF funding levels. She cited researchers “submitting a greater number of proposals just to get one funded” when many of the rejected proposals were no worse than those accepted. Bienenstock and Lee-Glauser argued for less “non-critical” reporting such as post-doc training plans to be filed initially, instead waiting to file that work after a grant had been approved.
Sedwick largely focused on the extra burden being picked up by administrative offices, in order to allow the scientists to spend as much time as possible focusing on research. She argued that universities had insufficient resources to keep up with requirements because of a 26 percent cap on administrative costs for grant related research that “has not kept pace” with the increased time needed to comply with regulations.
Throughout the hearing, the committee showed bipartisan support for reducing time spent on administrative work, and expressed the hope that something could be accomplished in the coming reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in May found that the number of jobs in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields has increased over the past ten years, but not as quickly as the number of degrees awarded. Over a ten year period from 2002-2012, the number of post-secondary degrees awarded in STEM fields increased by 55 percent, to more than 2 million per year. STEM degrees have also risen as a percentage of total degrees awarded, up from 39 percent to 42 percent. Over the same period the number of jobs in STEM fields has increased by 16 percent, to 16.5 million.
The report also highlights the difficulty of knowing “if the numbers of STEM graduates are aligned with workforce needs, in part because the demand for STEM workers fluctuates.” Singling out the effects of the recession, GAO points out that the STEM workforce dropped sharply after the financial crisis, but has rebounded “substantially.” The report did find that STEM fields fared much better than others through the recession. In 2012, those in STEM-related careers had an unemployment rate of only 3.2 percent, compared to the non-STEM rate of 8.4 percent.
Noting that the Obama Administration “maintains that a strong educational pipeline creating future STEM workers is important to ensure that the United States remains competitive with other highly technological nations,” GAO looked into the career-related goals of post-secondary and K-12 STEM programs. GAO found that nearly all of the 124 post-secondary programs surveyed factored in workforce needs when designing degree programs, and that nearly all K-12 programs emphasized preparation for higher level STEM education as a primary goal. However, several of these programs did not have any measurable outcomes related to these goals.
GAO made no recommendations in the report, and concluded, “it is difficult to determine whether there has been a shortage or a sufficient supply of STEM workers in the United States.” This report was prepared at the request of House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline (R-MN).
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is seeking a new Division Director for Environmental Biology (DEB). The director will supervise senior level DEB staff, prepare and justify budget estimates, and foster relationships with external partners. The application period is open until 11 August 2014. More information on the position can be found at https://www.usajobs.gov/GetJob/ViewDetails/372429800.
The Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits is a national initiative is an opportunity for biologists across the country to meet with their federal or state elected officials to showcase the people, facilities, and equipment that are required to support and conduct scientific research.
The 6th Annual Biological Sciences Congressional District Visits event enables scientists, graduate students, representatives of research facilities, and people affiliated with scientific collections to meet with their elected officials without traveling to Washington, DC. Participants may either invite their elected official to visit their research facility or can meet at the policymaker’s local office.
Participants will be prepared for their meeting with a lawmaker through an interactive training webinar. Individuals participating in this event will receive training on how to improve their communication skills and tips for conducting a successful meeting with an elected official. Information will also be presented about federal funding for biological research.
The event is made possible by the American Institute of Biological Sciences, with the support of event sponsors Botanical Society of America, Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, Natural Science Collections Alliance, Organization of Biological Field Stations, Society for the Study of Evolution, and Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology.
Participation is free, but registration will close on 13 July 2014. For more information and to register, visit www.aibs.org/public-policy/congressionaldistrictvisits.html.
Quick, free, easy, effective, impactful! Join the AIBS Legislative Action Center.
The Legislative Action Center is a one-stop shop for learning about and influencing science policy. Through the website, users can contact elected officials and sign-up to interact with lawmakers.
The website offers tools and resources to inform researchers about recent policy developments. The site also announces opportunities to serve on federal advisory boards and to comment on federal regulations.
This new tool is made possible through contributions from the Society for the Study of Evolution, Association for the Sciences of 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 policy.aibs.org to get started.