From the Hill
Obama budget includes bright spots for R&D
Although the Obama administration’s overall R&D budget proposal for the 2011 fiscal year is essentially flat as compared to that for 2010, it does contain bright spots for the nation’s science and technology (S&T) enterprise, the president’s science adviser John P. Holdren said during a briefing at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Overall, the budget proposal includes $147.7 billion for R&D, an increase of $343 million or just 0.2% above the 2010 level enacted by Congress. However, basic science research, along with energy, health, and climate, are among the sectors that would receive expanded funding in the coming budget year. At the same time, the administration would abandon a controversial Moon landing program and would cut the Department of Homeland Security’s R&D program by 9% or $104 million.
Acknowledging that the plan required many tough decisions on R&D priorities, Holdren said Obama had managed to “preserve and expand” S&T programs that the administration considers essential to promoting economic growth, protecting the environment, and setting the stage for a clean energy future.
The proposed 2011 budget includes a 5.6% overall increase for basic and applied research, to $61.6 billion, while cutting the total development budget by 3.5%, to $81.5 billion. It proposes a substantial increase for nondefense R&D, which would increase by $3.7 billion or 5.9% more than 2010. Defense Department R&D, meanwhile, would be reduced 4.4% to $77.5 billion, primarily through cuts in low-priority weapons development programs and congressional projects.
Among the highlights of the Obama budget:
The plan maintains the path to a doubling by 2017 of budgets for three key science agencies: the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST’s) laboratories.
The proposed 8% increase in NSF funding to $7.4 billion will expand efforts in climate and energy research and education, networking and information technology research, and research on environmental and economic sustainability. The budget would also sustain the administration’s effort to triple the number of new NSF Graduate Research Fellowships to 3,000 by 2013.
The budget would end the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) Constellation program, which was begun under President George W. Bush as an effort to send U.S. astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. The administration proposes to spend $6 billion over the next five years to encourage private companies to build and operate their own spacecraft to carry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.
The budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) would rise by 3.2% to $32.1 billion. The budget would focus on five strategic priorities: applying genomics and other high-throughput technologies, translating basic science discoveries into new and better treatments and diagnostics, using science to enable health care reform, global health, and reinvigorating and empowering the biomedical research community. NIH also will continue to award and oversee $10.4 billion provided in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
The R&D budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would rise by 10%, or almost $1 billion. The budget for the multiagency U.S. Global Change Research Program would rise 21% to $2.6 billion. The funding reflects the administration’s concerns about climate change and the declining health of the world’s oceans. “This is the largest increase in NOAA’s science budget in over a decade,” said NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco at the AAAS briefing.
The budget for the new National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s key competitive research program, the Agriculture Food and Research Initiative, would rise 63% to $429 million.
The budget proposes to spend $3.7 billion on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education programs. About $1 billion, an increase of nearly 40%, would go to K-12 programs to encourage interest in those fields.
The budget also proposes making the Research and Experimentation Tax Credit permanent; provides $300 million for DOE’s new Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E); gives $3.1 billion to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a 3.7% increase; and provides $679 million for R&D at the U. S. Geological Survey, a 2.9% increase.
In its budget documents, the Obama administration says that NASA’s Constellation program, on which more than $9 billion has already been spent to develop a crew capsule called Orion and a rocket called Ares I, threatened other parts of NASA’s endeavors while “failing to achieve the trajectory of a program that was sustainable, executable, and ultimately successful.”
The 2011 NASA R&D budget would increase by $1.7 billion or 18.3%. The emphasis would be on technology development and testing to “reverse decades of under-investment in new aerospace ideas and re-engage our greatest minds,” the budget document says. A new heavy-lift and propulsion R&D program will be part of the administration’s effort to “re-baseline” the nation’s space exploration efforts.
“Simply put, we’re putting the science back into rocket science,” Holdren said. The NASA budget also calls for a steady stream of new robotic missions to scout locations for future human missions.
The proposed changes at NASA are expected to draw intense attention on Capitol Hill. “The space agency’s budget request represents a radical departure from the bipartisan consensus achieved by Congress in successive authorizations over the past five years,” said Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), the chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology. “This requires deliberate scrutiny. We will need to hear the administration’s rationale for such a change and assess its impact on U.S. leadership in space before Congress renders its judgment on the proposals.”
Congress examines energy R&D
With climate change legislation on hold for now, Congress is focusing on the role of energy R&D. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a January 21 hearing to examine initiatives that will help the United States address climate change through energy R&D.
At the hearing, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said that federal investment in new energy technologies helps U.S. competitiveness, creates jobs, and combats climate change. The fact that most R&D projects do not yield positive returns is more than offset by extremely high returns from some investments. He said that estimates of the net return on public investment in R&D range from 20 to 67%, with some projects yielding returns of more than 2,000%.
Chu highlighted agency priorities: increasing the production of biofuels; enhancing car batteries; improving photovoltaics; designing computers that will improve building efficiency; and creating large-scale energy storage systems that will enable renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to become base load sources. DOE wants to focus emissions reduction research in areas such as trucking, where reductions will be difficult to achieve.
Chu said that progress toward several energy R&D goals would be helped by several newer programs: Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs), Energy Innovation Hubs, and ARPA-E. EFRCs support multiyear, multi-investigator scientific collaborations focused on overcoming hurdles in basic science that block transformational discoveries. Energy Innovation Hubs are collaborative efforts focused on a specific energy challenge, especially barriers to transforming energy technologies into commercially viable materials, devices, and systems. Three Energy Innovation Hubs have been created that focus on the production of fuels from sunlight, energy-efficient building systems design, and modeling and simulation of advanced nuclear reactors. ARPA-E funds high-risk, high-reward energy research. Among its projects are smaller and more efficient wind turbines, new carbon-capture technology, and liquid-metal batteries.
On January 27, the House Science and Technology Committee held a hearing to examine the progress of ARPA-E, which has been in existence for less than a year. Authorized by the America COMPETES Act in 2007, the program received its initial funding in the 2009 economic stimulus bill.
ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar said prospective grantees had expressed a high level of interest in the program. ARPA-E received more than 3,700 concept papers in response to its first announcement, leading to 37 awards averaging $4 million each. Majumdar noted the importance of translating the upstream research funded by this program into jobs for U.S. workers. Nearly all members of Congress present at the hearing echoed the importance of ensuring that the United States is able to commercialize and manufacture the technologies developed through the grants.
Other witnesses testified in support of ARPA-E, with Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, stating the program is “off to a great start.” John Denniston of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers encouraged Congress to expand the program. The Obama administration appears to agree: The fiscal year 2011 budget request contains $300 million for ARPA-E. The request also contains $40 million in new funding to create several new EFRCs as well as support for the 46 existing centers. The budget proposes $107 million to support the three existing Energy Innovation Hubs and create a new hub to focus on batteries and energy storage.
House considers reauthorization of America COMPETES Act
On January 20, the House Science and Technology Committee held a hearing to discuss the America COMPETES Act and its role in supporting STEM education, the economy, and R&D. The committee is planning a vote to reauthorize the act before Memorial Day.
The America COMPETES Act was passed in 2007 and authorized $33.6 billion from 2008 to 2010 in new spending for a host of research and education programs at NSF, DOE, NIST, NOAA, NASA, and the Department of Education. If funding hits the targets authorized by the bill, the main beneficiaries—NSF, DOE’s Office of Science, and NIST—will double their budgets over seven years. However, appropriated funding has not matched the doubling path of authorized funding.
At the hearing, all witnesses agreed that the American COMPETES Act provides a necessary boost for STEM education, fields that will be critical for students’ success in future jobs. John Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, said that the reauthorization of America COMPETES would increase the number of STEM students and good STEM teachers as well as increase the ability of the United States to create new jobs in both the near and long term. “Investments in research and education provide the tools for accelerated technological innovation, which drives productivity growth,” Castellani said. “Innovation leads to new products and processes, even whole new industries, thereby generating high-wage employment and a higher standard of living for all Americans.”
Tom Donohue, chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said more R&D investment is needed, noting that U.S. businesses in math and science fields are dropping out of the upper echelons in those fields: Only 4 of the world’s top 10 businesses in math and science fields are from the United States, he said.
The America COMPETES Act also established ARPA-E. At the January 20 hearing, former Michigan Governor John Engler, who is now the president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Manufacturers, testified in support of ARPA-E. He stated that to improve manufacturing, “there needs to be fundamental transformation in how we produce, distribute, and consume energy. This transformation should start with a shift in how we view and approach energy research. This is the goal of ARPA-E and it presents a unique platform to integrate innovative industry, research, and development and yield results.”
Multiple witnesses testified that the reauthorization of the America COMEPTES Act could better coordinate federal investment in R&D and federal/state and federal/private R&D partnerships. Witnesses said that there should be more public/private R&D partnerships.
Committee considers reform of export controls
On January 15, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing in Stanford, California, on the impact of export controls on national security and U.S. leadership in S&T.
The hearing provided an opportunity to hear the testimony of John L. Hennessey, president of Stanford University and co-chair of the National Research Council’s Committee on Science, Security, and Prosperity, which published the report Beyond Fortress America. That report criticized the existing export control regime as an antiquated artifact of the Cold War and proposed recommendations for reforming the system to better assess the sharing of dual-use technologies that have both civilian and military applications.
Hennessey warned that U.S. leadership in science is slipping and that this Cold War approach to dual-use technologies does not accurately reflect 21st-century research that relies on foreign students at U.S. universities, international collaboration, and teamwork across multiple campuses. He cited examples of research at Stanford that has been impeded by dual-use restrictions. For example, investigators working with a NASA research instrument aboard a satellite were limited to what information they could share with foreign students because satellite technologies are considered military munitions.
The other witnesses and members of Congress present at the hearing all agreed that export controls should be updated to better balance national security and international competitiveness, but there was no consensus on what constituted an appropriate balance.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) argued that the United States should err on the side of caution when dealing with nations that infringe on human rights and have a record of attempting to steal high-tech information. He maintained that students from countries such as China have been sent to study in the United States for the express purpose of stealing technological know-how.
Hennessey, on the other hand, argued that if a university is conducting basic fundamental research, then that research should be open and available to all students, even if the field of research exposes students to a potential problem.
Bits and pieces
- Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) introduced The Clean Air Act Amendments of 2010, which call for substantial reductions in soot-forming sulfur dioxide, smog-forming nitrogen dioxide, and mercury. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also in the process of drafting regulations for these pollutants, after its previous efforts were voided by court rulings.
- The Cybersecurity Enhancement Act of 2009 (H.R. 4061) passed the House on February 4. The bill would expand cybersecurity research programs at NSF and NIST. The bill requires federal agencies to create a strategic cybersecurity plan and makes the Office of Science and Technology Policy responsible for creating a university/industry task force to find areas to collaborate. The bill also provides NSF with grant and fellowship funding for computer and network security.
- President Obama announced a $250 million public/private effort to boost STEM education. The initiative seeks to prepare more than 10,000 new teachers over five years and provide professional development opportunities to more than 100,000 current teachers. It would effectively double the campaign launched by Obama in November 2009.
- The EPA released a proposed rule that would reduce the allowable amount of ground-level ozone in the air from 75 to between 60 and 70 parts per billion for any eight-hour period. Ground-level ozone is a primary component of smog. The new proposal mirrors the unanimous recommendation of EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee in 2007, a recommendation that was not adopted by the Bush administration in 2008 when new rules were released. The EPA also announced that it will set a secondary, seasonal ozone limit to protect plants and trees. The proposal must undergo 60 days of public comment before becoming final.
- The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said that it has “some concern” about the potential effects of bisphenol-A, a chemical found in plastic bottles and food packaging, on the brain, behavior, and prostate glands of fetuses, infants, and children. This is a reversal of the FDA position during the Bush administration. The agency now plans further study of the compound’s effects on humans and animals.
- Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced the creation of a 15-member Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to provide recommendations for developing a long-term national solution for managing used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. The commission, co-chaired by former Rep. Lee Hamilton and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, will produce an interim report within 18 months and a final report within 24 months. DOE officials emphasized that the commission will not attempt to find a new site for permanently storing nuclear wastes but will instead focus on alternative ways for dealing with nuclear waste. DOE recently abandoned plans to locate a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
- In a 3-2 party-line vote, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) added risks and opportunities from climate change to the possible effects that public companies should disclose. In an “interpretive guidance” document, the SEC noted several areas in which climate change may trigger disclosure requirements, including the impact of legislation, regulation, and international accords, as well as the physical effects of climate change.
- President Obama announced that the federal government, the nation’s largest energy consumer, will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 28% below 2008 levels by 2020. The announcement builds on targets submitted by federal agencies in response to an October 5, 2009, Executive Order on Federal Sustainability.
“From the Hill” is prepared by the Center for Science, Technology, and Congress at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (www.aaas.org/spp) in Washington, D.C., and is based on articles from the center’s bulletin Science & Technology in Congress.