A Periodic Federal Science Update

Congress and the FY17 Continuing Resolution – Congress is looking to recess next week so that House Members and Senators can return to their districts and states to campaign for the upcoming election.  With the new fiscal year (FY2017) beginning on October 1, none of the 12 appropriations bills for FY17 have been enacted into law.  As a result, Congress will have to pass a stop-gap funding measure – a continuing resolution (CR).  The CR – which was introduced this week and will be voted upon next week, contains funding authority for most agencies and programs to operate until December 9 at levels just slightly below (about .5%) the FY 2016 level.  The CR also includes funding for the Zika virus as well.  Senate Democrats are said to be preparing to oppose the CR since it does not include any funding for the water contamination issues facing Flint, Michigan.  Votes on the CR will take place next week in the Senate and House.

AAAS Predicts Congress to Increase Federal Support for Research and Development -- Congress is on track to increase federal spending for research and development programs by at least $3.1 billion in fiscal 2017 over the previous year, a noteworthy boost at a time when overall federal discretionary spending is slated to remain flat, according to AAAS’ latest analysis of federal spending programs.  R&D spending in the 12 appropriations measures that the House Appropriations Committee has approved would increase spending by $3.1 billion, a 2.1% increase over fiscal 2016, and the 12 measures the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved would boost spending by $4.7 billion, a 3.2% increase over fiscal 2016, said AAAS’ latest R&D budget analysis report.

Research and development (R&D) spending is mostly concentrated in six major spending bills that encompass programs in nine federal departments and at least nine other agencies, and includes both discretionary accounts – spending that Congress adjusts and allocates annually – and mandatory accounts – direct spending that has dedicated funding streams established by law.  The National Institutes of Health and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are likely to receive the lion share of the increase estimated by AAAS.

 Establishment of House Earth & Space Science Caucus -- On September 14, Representatives David Jolly (R-FL) and Jared Polis (D-CO) launched the new House Earth & Space Science Caucus.  The purpose of the new caucus is to promote and broaden awareness of the societal, economic, and scientific advancements made possible by the earth and space sciences; to illustrate the breadth of policy issues and public and private interests impacted by the earth & space sciences; to serve as an ongoing information resource for Members of Congress and their staff; and to exchange ideas and information with Earth and space scientists, federal science agencies, universities and research institutions, professional and institutional Earth and space science societies and organizations, and the Administration. The caucus has the following policy objectives:

·      Support federal investment in basic and applied science;

·      Support strong and sustained funding for the Earth and space sciences in appropriations and authorization bills;

·      Support the inclusion of Earth and space sciences in STEM education curriculum for primary and secondary students.

For more information on this new caucus, contact Brittany Webster at the American Geophysical Institute.

Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Marks Up NASA and other Legislation -- The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee marked up a new NASA authorization bill on Wednesday that focuses on the desire to avoid disruption to NASA's human spaceflight program during the upcoming presidential transition.  It is one of several bills the committee marked up, including the INSPIRE Women Act that passed the House earlier this year.  It is designed to encourage women to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The 2016 NASA Transition Authorization Act, S. 3346:

  • affirms support for continuity across presidential administrations in space science and exploration;
  • supports utilization of the International Space Station through at least 2024 and requires an evaluation of the feasibility of operations through at least 2028, while also requiring a report from NASA on how to transform low Earth orbit from a "model reliant on government support to one reflecting a more commercially viable future";
  • adds human exploration of Mars as an explicit goal and objective for NASA and requires NASA to submit a "strategic framework and critical decision plan" on how to achieve it; and, among other objectives
  • directs NASA to continue the SLS and Orion programs with the first uncrewed mission in 2018 and the first mission with a crew "by 2021".

The bill authorizes $19.5 billion for NASA in FY2017, the same amount approved by the House Appropriations Committee in its version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill.  The amount is $202 million more than the Senate Appropriations Committee approved.  The authorization bill allocates the difference to NASA's exploration account.  The House passed a NASA authorization bill in 2015 (H.R. 810) that can serve as a basis for compromise if both chambers want to pass a bill this year. 

The other space-related bill marked up is the Inspiring Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act, H.R. 4755.  The House passed the bill in March.  The bill was sponsored by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Virginia). The bill directs NASA to take steps to encourage women to study STEM fields and submit a plan on how NASA can facilitate and support current and retired astronauts, scientists, engineers and innovators to engage with K-12 female STEM students.

White House Science Advisor Issues Guidance on Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People – On September 15, 2016, Dr. John Holdren, The Science Advisor to the President and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), released the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team 2016 Annual Report.  Last September, President Obama issued an Executive Order directing Federal agencies to integrate behavioral-science insights—research insights about how people make decisions and act on them—into the design of their policies and programs. The Executive Order (#13707) also charged the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST), a cross-agency group of applied behavioral scientists, program officials, and policymakers, with providing policy guidance and advice to Federal agencies in support of this directive. The Social and Behavioral Sciences Team 2016 Annual Report highlights SBST’s progress implementing the President’s directive over the past year in eight key policy areas: promoting retirement security, advancing economic opportunity, improving college access and affordability, responding to climate change, supporting criminal-justice reform, assisting job seekers, helping families get health coverage and stay healthy, and improving the effectiveness and efficiency of Federal Government operations. The 2016 report builds on SBST’s 2015 report, which detailed over a dozen projects that helped more service members save for retirement, more students go to college and better manage their student loans, more veterans access education and career counseling benefits, and more family farmers gain access to credit.

PCAST Releases Report on Forensic Science in Criminal Courts --  On September 20, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released its latest report to the President, Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods. “Forensic science” refers to the application of scientific or technical practices to the recognition, collection, analysis, and interpretation of evidence for criminal and civil law or regulatory issues. Developments over the past two decades—including wrongful convictions in which forensic science has played a role and scientific studies of forensic science methods—have called increasing attention to the question of the scientific validity and reliability of some important forms of forensic evidence and of testimony based upon them.  The study that led to the report was a response to the President’s question to his PCAST in 2015, as to whether there are additional steps on the scientific side, beyond those already taken by the Administration in the aftermath of a highly critical 2009 National Research Council report on the state of the forensic sciences, that could help ensure the validity of forensic evidence used in the Nation’s legal system.

PCAST concluded that two important gaps warranted the group’s attention: (1) the need for clarity about the scientific standards for the validity and reliability of forensic methods and (2) the need to evaluate specific forensic methods to determine whether they have been scientifically established to be valid and reliable. The study aimed to help close these gaps for a number of forensic “feature-comparison” methods—specifically, methods for comparing DNA samples, bitemarks, latent fingerprints, firearm marks, footwear, and hair.  The report discusses the role of scientific validity within the legal system; explains the criteria by which the scientific validity of forensic methods can be judged; applies those criteria to the forensic feature-comparison methods mentioned above; and offers recommendations on Federal actions that could be taken to strengthen forensic science and promote its rigorous use in the courtroom.