A Periodic Federal Science Update

21st Century Cures Legislation Passed in the House – On November 30, the House passed a conferenced version of the 21st Century Cures Act.  The Cures legislation would provide $4.8 billion for a special “Innovation Projects” account to support specific initiatives at the NIH over the next 10 years, including $1.4 billion for the Precision Medicine Initiative, $1.564 billion for the BRAIN Initiative and $1.8 billion for cancer research.  The legislation would also reauthorize the NIH for the years FY2018-FY2020, providing an NIH authorization of $36.47 billion by FY2020, an increase of $4.4 billion over current funding levels.  Additionally, the bill creates a “Next Generation of Researchers Initiative” to promote and improve opportunities for new researchers.  The act also includes a section on reducing administrative burden for researchers.  

This bill is a product of negotiations led by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Senate HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), includes $1 billion in state grants to fight opioid abuse.  It will advance the current Administration’s personalized medicine initiative, Vice-President Biden’s cancer moonshot, Alzheimer’s research and move many treatments and cures more rapidly and safely through the regulatory process and into doctors’ offices.  A copy of the Cures legislation can be found here.  A section-by-section summary of the bill can be found here.  The White House has come out in strong support for this version of the 21st Century Cures Act.  View the Statement of Administration Policy here.

New Manufacturing Education Program to be Established and Micro-purchase Threshold Lifted via Conference Report for FY 2017 DOD Authorization Act – Earlier this week the House and Senate Armed Services Committees released the conference report related to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY 2017.  Authorized levels for DOD basic research and applied research were reduced from last year’s level by 7.3% and 3.3% respectively.  At the same time, the conference report includes a new manufacturing engineering education program and lifts the micro-purchase threshold for procurement related to research activities from $3000 to $10,000 – a level advocated by the Council on Government Relations (COGR). 

Under the new manufacturing engineering education program, DOD will be authorized to make grants to support the enhancement of existing programs and the establishment of new programs in manufacturing engineering education.  Eligible applicants for this program include industry, not-for-profit institutions, institutions of higher education, or consortia of such institutions and industry.  Grants will support integrated multidisciplinary programs of education with an emphasis on multi-disciplinary instruction, opportunities for students to obtain work experience in manufacturing, and faculty and student engagement with industry.

Rep. Tom Price to Head up the Department of Health and Human Services -- President-elect Donald Trump announced Tuesday that he would nominate current House Budget Chairman Tom Price to head the Department of Health and Human Services.  The department oversees federal agencies including the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health. Price, a Republican from Georgia, would need a simple majority of Senate floor votes to win confirmation.  For nearly 20 years, Rep. Price worked in private practice as an orthopedic surgeon. Before coming to Washington, he returned to Emory University School of Medicine as an Assistant Professor and Medical Director of the Orthopedic Clinic at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, teaching resident doctors in training. He received his Bachelor and Doctor of Medicine degrees from the University of Michigan and completed his Orthopedic Surgery residency at Emory University.  Rep. Price has been highly critical of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans, including President-Elect Trump, have made repeal of the law and passage of replacement legislation a key task for next year. As HHS secretary, Rep. Price would likely have a large amount of influence over the creation of a new system.

In addition to Chairman Price’s nomination, President-elect Trump announced his choice of Seema Verma to serve as Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.  Seema Verma is the President, CEO and founder of SVC, Inc., a national health policy consulting company. For more than 20 years, Ms. Verma has worked extensively on a variety of policy and strategic projects involving Medicaid, insurance, and public health, working with Governors' offices, State Medicaid agencies, State Health Departments, State Departments of Insurance, as well as the federal government, private companies and foundations.  Ms. Verma has experience redesigning Medicaid programs in several states. Ms. Verma is the architect of the Healthy Indiana Plan (HIP), the nation's first consumer directed Medicaid program under Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana and then-Governor Pence’s HIP 2.0 waiver proposal. Ms. Verma served as the State of Indiana’s health reform lead following the passage of Obamacare in 2010. Prior to consulting, Ms. Verma served as Vice President of Planning for the Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County and as a Director with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) in Washington D.C. Ms. Verma received her Master’s degree in Public Health, with a concentration in health policy and management from Johns Hopkins University, and her Bachelor’s degree in Life Sciences from the University of Maryland. 

Concerns Grow Regarding Earth Sciences Under the Trump Administration -- Many in the science community fear that climate change research will not be a welcome part of the federal research portfolio under a Trump Administration.   Former Rep. Bob Walker, a space policy advisor to the president elect’s transition team, has said he is in favor of eliminating climate change research from NASA’s operations and wants the agency to focus more on deep space research.  Rep. Walker said that “earth-centric science” like climate change research is better placed within other agencies where it can be their prime mission.  NASA’s budget has been threatened in recent years. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) introduced a spending bill in 2015 that would have cut NASA’s Earth science program by more than $300 million.  However, there has been a bipartisan effort to continue Earth science programs, which dates to the original mission when the agency was established through the 1958 Space Act.  Last year 15 former military leaders wrote a letter to congressional leaders to urge them to protect NASA Earth science programs, as well as geoscience programs at the National Science Foundation.  In a separate letter, over 100 academic institutions and research entities signed onto a letter in support of NSF and geo/earth sciences.  

Chairman John Culberson on Earth Sciences — On November 30, Science published an interview with Rep. John Culberson, Chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and NSF.  In that interview Chairman Culberson was asked about moving earth sciences out of NASA.  He said, “At this point that is very speculative. There’s strong support in Congress for keeping a close eye on planet Earth and understanding our complex planet. And the future level of funding and who’s responsible for earth science will be an ongoing debate with the new administration and the incoming Congress. I’m quite confident there will continue to be strong support for the earth sciences as well as planetary sciences and the human space flight program throughout Congress and in the new administration.”  When pressed on whether the earth sciences would remain in NASA or be moved elsewhere the Chairman responded, “It will continue to be a topic of ongoing discussion. But nobody in the earth sciences community should be concerned in the least. All of us in Congress are strong supporters of keeping a close eye on planet Earth.”

FY 2017 Funding via Continuing Resolution – The current stop-gap funding of federal programs, the continuing resolution (CR), expires on December 9, 2016.  The incoming Administration and the Congress are discussing an extension of the CR until the end of March 2017.  Some Senators are considering an even longer extension until April or May.  Under the CR federal programs, generally, continue to operate under last year’s funding levels.  March will be a crucial time for federal funding issues as the current debt limited is expected to be reached in mid-March.  The new Administration will likely have to ask for an extension in the debt limit which could set off a series of major budget negotiations on current and out-year discretionary spending, the sequester which is set to resume in FY 2018, tax reform, entitlement reform, and other significant issues.

The current CR contains an across-the-board spending reduction of .5 percent which was applied to maintain the bill’s adherence to the $1.067 trillion base discretionary spending limit. The reduction was needed because of expiring rescissions and changes in mandatory programs, which had offset higher spending in 2016. The measure continued Overseas Contingency Operations, or war funding, at the fiscal 2016 level of $74 billion for the year.  Also, included in the spending package were:  $1.1 billion in emergency spending to combat the Zika virus; $500 million in flood relief for Louisiana and other states; Full-year appropriations for veterans’ programs and military construction projects; and $37 million in annualized funding to address the opioids epidemic.  The overall package contained $400 million in spending rescissions, divided among the Military Construction-VA measure, the Zika response and other components of the CR.

Discretionary Spending Outlook for FY 2018 – House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy met with the press recently to discuss the legislative plans for the next Congress when it convenes in January 2017.  As reported by Congressional Quarterly, Leader McCarthy indicated that Republicans would increase defense spending, but did not seem particularly supportive of increasing domestic spending as well.  “If you want to do something — investment in the military — it means you have to do all this other stuff domestically that may not be needed,” he said. “If we are able to be together I think we solve all that.”

Democrats have repeatedly said they will not support spending bills that do not have equal increases in defense and non-defense spending. Those Democratic votes would be needed to pass appropriations bills next year in the Senate.  When asked specifically if Republicans would work to lift sequestration caps or remove them entirely, McCarthy said that “in a sequester you’re not able to prioritize.”  He added that lawmakers “should take the responsibility” to determine where federal dollars are allocated.

McCarthy also weighed in on the likely increases in the deficit and the debt that could take place during the next few years under a Trump administration.  “How do you solve this problem? You have to grow the economy,” McCarthy said, noting that he would also like to focus on the amount of government spending that is considered mandatory, including Medicare and Social Security.  “That’s making up 66 percent of the budget,” he said. “We’ve got to get a handle on mandatory. We’ve got to grow the economy to get us out of this problem.”

OMB Issues Revised Guidance on Federal Employee Travel for Professional Conferences — On November 25, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued an update to Memorandum M-12-12. The updated guidelines replace the existing regulations that severely restricted federal employee travel to scientific conferences. The revisions allow for delegation of travel approvals to “appropriate officials” within agencies instead of senior staff, faster approvals, and the pre-approval of travel to recurring conferences. Finally, OMB will no longer require agencies to provide pre-approval for federal employees to travel to conferences or meetings hosted by non-government entities which should remove many of the barriers currently faced by federal staff.

Science and Education Leaders Call on Incoming Trump Administration to Name a Science Advisor -- The heads of several U.S. scientific and higher-education organizations wrote to President-elect Donald Trump on November 23, urging him to quickly appoint a “nationally respected leader with appropriate engineering, scientific, management and policy skills” to serve as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology.  Such a senior-level adviser would be able to assist the White House in “determining effective ways to use science and technology to address major national challenges,” the group noted. They requested a meeting with the President-elect or leaders of his transition team to suggest candidates for top science and technology posts within the new Administration and to help “to ensure that the U.S. innovation infrastructure grows and flourishes.”  In their letter, the science-society CEOs, presidents and executive directors also emphasized the value of science and technology to society. “The economic benefits of advancements in science, technology and innovation have been well documented, estimated by leading economists to have accounted for approximately half of U.S. economic growth over the last fifty years,” they wrote. “Past government investments in the U.S. scientific and technological enterprise have fueled our economy, created new jobs, and ensured our global competitiveness and national security,” the science-society letter added.

U.S. Senate Passes Digital Coast Act -- On November 28, the Senate passed via unanimous consent, S. 2325, the Digital Coast Act.  This bill would require the Secretary of Commerce, acting through the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to establish a constituent-driven program to provide a digital information platform capable of efficiently integrating coastal data with decision-support tools, training, and best practices and to support collection of priority coastal geospatial data to inform and improve local, State, regional, and Federal capacities to manage the coastal region.  The bill will now go over to the House where advocates will try and get the House to pass this bill before this session of Congress ends in late December.

Erich Bloch, Former NSF Director, Passes Away at 91 -- Erich Bloch, who served as the agency's eighth director died at his home on Friday, Nov. 25, at age 91.  Mr. Bloch served a full six-year term as director, from 1984 to 1990. He was a strong advocate for research and championed funding for high-risk, revolutionary projects. He played an integral role supporting the National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET), a "network of networks" that gave rise to today's internet. Mr. Bloch was also instrumental in creating NSF's Engineering Research Center and Science and Technology Center programs, which build collaborations that address national-level challenges in science and engineering and spur economic development.  Mr. Bloch was a distinguished engineer who worked for IBM and was the first director to come to NSF from industry. Among his many accomplishments as director, he brought industry and researchers together to advance computing, creating the Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) Directorate.  He played a key role in establishing the nation's supercomputer centers and in the eventual passing of the seminal High-Performance Computing Act of 1991, which included the government-wide High-Performance Computing and Communications initiative.  In 2002, the National Science Board (NSB) honored Mr. Bloch as the 24th recipient of the esteemed Vannevar Bush Award for his long-running contributions to science and technology.