Budget & Finance Outlook

Congress Eyeing Two-Year Budget Deal

Republican and Democratic leadership are currently considering a budget deal to raise discretionary spending caps for both FY 2018 and FY 2019. This deal would provide temporary relief from sequestration and allow more room for science funding growth. According to reports, lawmakers have yet to agree on how defense will be treated relative to nondefense accounts, with Democrats insisting on parity. The deal is expected to be finalized by the end of this month, setting up the contours for a possible fiscal 2018 omnibus by the year’s end. Currently, the government is operating on a continuing resolution that expires December 8. For the most up-to-date analysis on science agency funding outcomes in the current budget cycle, see the AAAS R&D Appropriations Dashboard.

House Passes GOP Tax Bill, Senate Action Next

On November 16, the House passed a sweeping GOP tax bill (H.R.1) on a partisan 227-205 vote. Numerous scientific organizations, including AAAS, opposed provisions in the bill that would increase the financial burden on graduate students in STEM fields. Meanwhile, the Senate version of the bill, which was passed by the Senate Finance Committee last week, retains many of the student tax benefits that the House slated for elimination, but falls short in several areas (see AAU statement). Specifically, the Senate plan would eliminate the state and local tax deductions while imposing an excise tax on certain private university endowments. The Senate tax bill could see floor action after the Thanksgiving recess.

Congress Passes Budget-Busting Defense Policy Bill

Last week, Congress approved the final version of its FY 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. The bill (H.R.2810)authorizes base defense spending for fiscal year 2018 at $626.4 billion, which is $77.3 billion above the current sequester level of $549 billion. Passage of the NDAA comes as lawmakers seek a budget deal to raise existing caps, as discussed above. Within the NDAA, Department of Defense Research, Development, Test and Evaluation programs would be authorized at $86.3 billion, slightly above the president’s request. The legislation also contains a host of research-related provisions, including the authorized construction of a new heavy icebreaker in polar seas, but rejects a proposal to establish a U.S. Space Corps. The NDAA now heads to President Trump for his signature.

Congressional News

House Science Committee Passes STEM Ed and DOE Bipartisan Bills

On November 15, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee passed four bills addressing STEM education and three bills related to Department of Energy programs. The committee passed the STEM Research and Education Effectiveness and Transparency Act (H.R.4375), introduced by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA); the Supporting Veterans in STEM Careers Act (H.R.4323), introduced by Rep. Neal Dunn (R-FL); the Women in Aerospace Education Act(H.R.4254), introduced by Rep. Steve Knight (R-CA); and the Building Blocks of STEM Act (H.R.3397), introduced by Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-NV). The three unanimously passed bills addressing research at the Department of Energy include the Department of Energy Research Infrastructure Act (H.R.4376), introduced by Rep. Steve Knight (R-CA); the Accelerating American Leadership in Science Act (H.R.4377), introduced by Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL); and the Nuclear Energy Research Infrastructure Act (H.R.4378), introduced by Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX). Further details on the STEM-related bills can be found here, and additional information on each of the DOE-related bills can be found here.

House Passes Bill to Implement Evidence-Based Policymaking

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2017(H.R.4174) to implement the recommendations of a Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. The commission was established in 2016 by a bipartisan, bicameral bill introduced by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA). It issued a report earlier this year with a strategy and a set of recommendations for “increasing the availability and use of data in order to build evidence about government programs, while protecting privacy and confidentiality.” The recently passed House bill implements some of the recommendations and has the support of a range of societies, including the American Statistical Association.

Senate Democrats Urge President to Nominate Science Advisor

On November 16, six Senate Democrats led by Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) sent a letter to President Trump urging him to nominate a science advisor and to bring in more scientific and technical experts into the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The letter notes that having scientific expertise could help the administration in guiding decisions related to climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, North Korea’s nuclear program and dealing with natural disasters such as Hurricane Irma.

Senate Committee Examines Gene-Editing Regulations

On November 14, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee held a hearing on the technical and ethical implications of CRISPR/Cas9, a gene-editing tool that scientists can use to edit DNA in a variety of applications. At the hearing, witnesses explained the general science behind CRISPR and how the FDA oversees clinical trials related to CRISPR breakthroughs. No clinical trials involving CRISPR in human patients currently exist in the United States or Europe, but Stanford pediatrics professor Matthew Porteus says he expects such trials to launch within the next 12 to 18 months. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) noted that scientific advancements in CRISPR have outpaced regulatory policy, and many senators showed concern with making sure that the technology is not misused and that the United States sets the tone for what constitutes an “acceptable application” for CRISPR as the technology advances. Witnesses cautioned that an overly strict approach to regulations could drive research to other countries where there is little or no oversight, and Jeffrey Kahn, director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, argued that the research community has robust structures for oversight in place to ensure that the science is only used for what it is intended. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) noted that the research community must ensure consumer safety, and that if congressional oversight of CRISPR science will have any value, it must start with scientific consensus on what is and is not ethical. Kahn conceded that gene-editing that would introduce heritable changes would raise serious ethical concerns, and that “we will need very strict oversight if that's ever to go forward.”

In the States

44 States Ask Congress to Repeal Law that Weakens DEA

Forty-four state attorneys general signed a letter from the National Association of Attorneys General asking Congress to repeal a law that weakens the Drug Enforcement Agency’s ability to suspend a drug company’s operations for failing to comply with federal law. The attorneys general cited an opinion of the DEA chief administrative law judge in their letter. The law in question, the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, was passed with bipartisan support in 2016. Repeal of the law is stalled because no key Republicans have signed on.

In the courts

Court of Appeals Reinstates Portion of Administration’s Travel Ban

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled on the administration’s request to block a decision by a federal judge in Hawaii that prevented the latest travel ban from going into effect. The ruling partially reinstates the travel ban, allowing it to remain in place for people from six majority Muslim countries who lack ties to the United States. The lower court judge’s decision was upheld regarding those individuals who do have ties to the United States, for example, close family ties or relationships to a university or company. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department said the government will begin enforcing the ban consistent with the court’s ruling. At the same time, the government will continue its appeal of the lower court ruling, arguing that the ban should be allowed in its entirety.

Appellate Court Upholds Decision on Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act Case

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the conviction of an individual under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. The law was enacted in 2006 at the urging of several biomedical research societies to combat a wave of violence and threats aimed at scientists and institutions that used animals in research. Other appellate courts have refused to declare the AETA unconstitutional, but this is the first time a specific conviction has been upheld.

People in the news

New Scientific Director at NIMHD

Anna Maria Napoles has been named scientific director of the Division of Intramural Research for the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. She has been an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, where she was a professor in the Division of Internal Medicine. She conducted research and developed community interventions for underserved ethnic minority groups, with a focus on Latino health.

Other News

Drop in Number of International Students Coming to U.S.

The number of new international students enrolling in American colleges and universities dropped in 2016 and may continue to decline this year. Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, said it is too early to tell if there is a “Trump effect” accounting for the drop, which was the first in six years. Nevertheless, the total number of foreign students, counting those already enrolled, reached a record high of 1.08 million in 2016. The countries contributing the highest number of students to the United States are China and India.

Bill Gates Donates $50 Million to Alzheimer’s Research

Bill Gates is donating $50 million of his own money to the Dementia Discovery Fund, which sponsors research to find a successful treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Gates says that the neurodegenerative disorder has affected men in his own family, and he understands the toll the disease takes on patients and their families. He expressed the hope that the money will go to fund scientists who have “less mainstream ideas.” One challenge in making progress against Alzheimer’s is money, but another is U.S. patent law. According to one article, definitive treatment and preventive clinical trials are likely to cost billions and take years to complete, but patent protection and market exclusivity may have expired before a drug can be approved. This limits the ability of pharmaceutical companies to invest in Alzheimer’s research.