Congress approves FY 06 Interior and Environment appropriations

Prior to leaving Washington, DC for the August recess, Congress passed the final version of the fiscal year 2006 spending legislation for the Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, and related agencies. Efforts by AIBS and other members of the USGS Coalition have not gone unnoticed. Under the final version of HR 2361, the US Geological Survey will receive $976.0 million; an increase of roughly 4.3 percent over last year's funding level. This is more than the original Senate and House marks, which were $963.1 million and $974.6 million. The appropriations level is in marked contrast to that proposed in the President's budget, which would have dropped funding to $933.6 million --$2 million less than FY 2005 levels.

For the Environmental Protection Agency, Congress has approved $741.7 million for science and technology activities, which is lower than the House amount of $765.3 million but higher than the Senate level of $730.8 million.

House considers NIH reauthorization

On 19 July the House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing on the proposed reauthorization of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The lone witness, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, Director of NIH, expressed his support for the changes included in the draft legislation. The legislation being crafted by the Commerce Committee includes a reorganization of the NIH's 27 institutes and increased authority for the NIH Director to transfer funds among research programs. The $28 billion agency was last reauthorized in 1993.

NIH reauthorization is a major goal for Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) who pointed out during the hearing that Congress has "recently doubled NIH's budget, but [they] have done nothing to re-organize its management structure." Under the draft legislation, the 27 NIH institutes would be separated into two major divisions: one containing the institutes that focus on specific diseases, organs, or life stages and the second housing those that work on more basic research. Additionally, each center would set aside five percent of their budget for a "common fund for the common good" to support programs that cross institutional lines. The NIH Director, with the approval of the Secretary of Health and Human Services, would also have the unprecedented power to allocate these funds and establish or terminate programs.

During his testimony, Zerhouni supported the legislation and said the changes would be both "structural and functional...encouraging integration and synergy while not losing the autonomy and focus of each center's mission." Some supporters of the reorganization explain that it could make NIH more efficient as it provides greater balance between the Directors office and the 27 NIH institutes.

Critics of the plan argue that increasing the Director's power could make the agency too susceptible to political pressure on contentious issues such as stem cells. These changes "could result in ideology or political opinion trumping good science," said Representative Tom Allen (D-ME). Representative Anna Eschoo (D-CA) pointed out that providing the director with transfer authority over the common fund has already been implemented at NASA with poor results. Some in the academic and patient advocacy communities are among those critical of the proposed reorganization. Medical schools and research universities that tailor programs to receive specific NIH grants are concerned that they could be adversely impacted as changing priorities might quickly dry up sources of funding.

Future hearings on this legislation are expected after the August recess. Democratic opponents are hoping these hearings will include the testimony of additional stakeholders and will address more specific aspects of the reorganization.

NASA reauthorization moves forward

The House of Representatives has passed legislation that would reauthorize the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for fiscal years 2006 and 2007. The House approved the measure on 22 July by a vote of 383 to 15. The 18 July AIBS Public Policy Report details the bipartisan compromise that members of the Science Committee forged prior to the legislation moving to the full House.

HR 3070 supports the President's Vision for Space Exploration and authorizes funding for NASA at roughly $17 billion in FY 2006 and $17.7 billion in FY 2007. However, these numbers are merely authorized funding levels. For FY 06, the House Appropriations Committee has actually provided $16.5 billion and the Senate Appropriations Committee has provided $16.4 billion. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), the Science Committee's highest ranking Democrat, said that the positive vote "should not be misunderstood as a blanket endorsement of the Moon-Mars initiative" at the expense of NASA's other programs. The bill suggests that NASA transfer eligible science programs to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but it now calls for the agencies to draft and approve transition plans before such transfers to ensure that they make sense for both agencies and that NOAA has the funds needed to operate the programs. HR 3070 also supports funding for a "broad range" of research aboard the International Space Station, 15 percent of which should not relate directly to human exploration. Said Representative Mike Honda (D-CA): "I am particularly supportive of continuing our partnership in biological research on the International Space Station."

Senate confirms Olsen for NSF Deputy

The Senate has confirmed Dr. Kathie Olsen as the new deputy director of the National Science Foundation. Olsen's move to NSF comes after service as the associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Presidential science advisor Dr. John H. Marburger III said the government would "benefit immensely" from Olsen's "experience and leadership."

New in BioScience: "NSF Funding Still Lags Behind, but More in Congress Show Concern"

The August 2005 Washington Watch column is now available online.

"President Bush is in a tight spot. He faces a burgeoning national deficit and a crop of aging baby boomers who will soon require trillions in Medicare and Social Security benefits. Disinclined to curtail his tax cuts, the president has turned to snipping nondefense discretionary spending to demonstrate fiscal restraint, which does not bode well for scientists who rely on federal funding."

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