Category Archives: Key Science Bills Enacted in the 114th Congress

S. 3084: American Innovation and Competitiveness Act

Congress passed the “American Innovation and Competitiveness Act,” S. 3084. The Senate unanimously approved the bill on 10 December 2016, the last day of the legislative session. The legislation was then adopted during a pro forma session of the House of Representatives.

“Sending this bill to the White House is an overtime victory for science in the closing days of 2016,” said Senator John Thune (R-SD), who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. “This bill only passed the Senate in the early morning hours of Saturday after the House had already finished its business. It looked like the clock had run out, but the bipartisan team of House and Senate supporters behind this bill kept pushing.”

S. 3084 is a partial successor to the America COMPETES Act, which authorized funding for the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Standards and Technology and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The legislative authorizations for these agencies expired three years ago.

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) – the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology – supported the bill, but regretted that it did not recommend funding levels. “I believe that is a missed opportunity to send a signal to U.S. scientists and the world about how much we value and need a vibrant U.S. science and technology enterprise.”

The bill sets new policy directions for NSF, as well as reaffirms some existing policies. It sustains the current system of evaluating proposals on the basis of intellectual merit and broader impacts, but adds that this system is “to assure that the Foundation’s activities are in the national interest…” This is a departure from the language included in the House-passed bill that would have required NSF only fund grants that meet one of six categories in support of the “national interest.” In response to the strong concerns of representatives of the scientific community, this provision was removed from the final legislation.

The American Innovation and Competitiveness Act directs the NSF to provide public justification of each grant awarded, including a non-technical description of the project’s purpose. The agency has already been working to improve communications about its funding decisions to the public. These policy changes were motivated because of additional congressional scrutiny over particular award decisions, especially for social science and climate research.

New oversight will be given to large research projects funded by NSF’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction account. Several projects have been the target of congressional oversight due to projected cost overruns and lax management by NSF.

The legislation further directs NSF to evaluate needs for mid-scale research instrumentation and facilities. The agency currently funds more expensive projects ($100,000-$4,000,000 for instruments and $100 million or more for major facilities), but there is no dedicated funding for less expensive projects.

NSF will also have to report to Congress annually about rotators who are paid higher than the maximum rate of pay for the Senior Executive Service. Some lawmakers have expressed concern that temporary employees on loan to NSF from universities and other research institutions are paid more than permanent federal employees.

The Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) will be renamed to the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. The program directs funding to states and U.S. territories that have historically received less federal research funding than other states.

A new interagency working group will be established to provide recommendations on eliminating unnecessary and redundant paperwork for researchers and institutions. The group is directed to explore uniform grant proposals and financial disclosures, and to review regulations on research progress reports.

The bill directs federal science agencies to update policies on attendance at scientific and technical workshops. For the past five years, federal scientists have experienced difficulties in attending scientific conferences due to guidance issued by the White House for agencies to cut travel costs.

The legislation also includes numerous sections regarding science education, including a new advisory panel on diversity in the federal scientific workforce and program changes to improve retention of science teachers in NSF’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program.

S. 3084 was signed into law on January 6, 2017.

HR 2820: Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Reauthorization Act of 2015

This bill amends the Public Health Service Act and the Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act of 2005 to revise and extend through FY2020 the C.W. Bill Young Cell Transplantation Program and the National Cord Blood Inventory program. (These programs help match patients in need of a transplant with unrelated bone marrow and cord blood donors.)

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) must review the state of the science of using adult stem cells and birthing tissues to develop new therapies and consider the inclusion of new therapies in the C.W. Bill Young Cell Transplantation Program.

Requirements for HHS contracts under the Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act of 2005 are revised.

HHS must determine whether to include peripheral blood stem cells and umbilical cord blood in the definition of human organ.

HR 2820 is sponsored by Representative Christopher Smith and was enacted into law on December 18, 2015.

HR 1020: STEM Education Act of 2015

(Sec. 3) Requires the Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to continue to award competitive, merit-reviewed grants to support: (1) research and development of innovative out-of-school STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) learning and emerging STEM learning environments; and (2) research that advances the field of informal STEM education.

Requires supported activities to include research and development that improves understanding of learning and engagement in informal environments and design and testing of innovative STEM resources for such environments to improve STEM learning outcomes and increase engagement for elementary and secondary school students and teachers and the public.

(Sec. 4) Amends the National Science Foundation Authorization Act of 2002 to allow award of NSF Master Teaching Fellowships to mathematics and science teachers who possess a bachelor’s degree in their field (currently limited to those with a master’s degree).

Requires fellowship grants to be used, in the case of Master Teaching Fellowships for teachers with bachelor’s degrees in their field who are working toward a master’s degree, to: (1) offer academic courses leading to a master’s degree and leadership training to prepare individuals to become master teachers, and (2) offer programs both during and after matriculation to enable fellows to become highly effective mathematics and science teachers and to exchange ideas with others in their fields. Limits fellowship support during such a master’s degree program to one year, with a prorated amount in the case of enrollment in a part-time program.

Includes elementary or secondary school computer science teachers as mathematics and science teachers for purposes of the program of teacher recruiting and training grants known as the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program.

HR 1020 was sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith. It became law on October 7, 2015.

HR 2029: Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016

Seventy-nine days into fiscal year (FY) 2016, lawmakers finalized a spending plan for federal agencies. The deal is a major win for science advocates, as nearly all federal science programs will receive a needed budget bump.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) will receive a 1.6 percent increase above FY 2015, providing the agency with a total budget of $7.5 billion. The Research and Related Activities budget line will receive $100 million of the $119 million in new funding directed to NSF. Importantly, the bill does not include restrictions that had previously been approved by the House of Representatives to limit how NSF can allocate funding among its research directorates. That provision would have restricted funding for geosciences and social science research. Instead, appropriators opted to limit funding for the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences to a maximum of the FY 2015 level. Although many considered this a win, it still breaks with past practice of allowing the NSF and National Science Board to identify research priorities.

The report language accompanying the bill directs NSF to complete an independent audit of the cost of completing the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and a plan to “ensure greater NSF oversight of costs, schedule, and performance over the lifecycle of NEON and other large facility projects.” NEON has been the subject of congressional scrutiny due to cost overruns, which resulted in a reduced scope earlier this year. A few weeks ago, NSF announced that management of the project will be transitioned away from NEON, Inc.

Funding for other agencies relative to the 2015 enacted appropriations:

  • National Institutes of Health: +$2 billion
  • Agricultural Research Service: +$178 million
  • Agriculture and Food Research Initiative: +$25 million
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: +$325 million
  • Department of Energy, Biological and Environmental Research: +$17 million
  • U.S. Geological Survey, Ecosystems: +$1 million

Notably, the Environmental Protection Agency was once again on the chopping block. Although the agency’s total budget will decline by $27 million, funding for science will remain at the FY 2015 level.

The House and Senate easily cleared the measure with bipartisan support. The final vote tallies were 316 in favor versus 113 opposed in the House and 65-33 in the Senate.

This spending bill adheres to the budget deal reached in November 2015, which authorized an additional $25 billion to non-defense discretionary programs in FY 2016.

HR 2029 become law on December 18, 2015.

HR 34: 21st Century Cures Act

Congress has passed a package of health-related legislation, including a bill that aims to boost investments in biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) over the next three years. The bill authorizes—but does not fund—NIH at $36.5 billion in fiscal year 2020. NIH is currently funded at $31.4 billion. To attain the higher funding level, Congress will have to appropriate the additional funds in annual spending bills.

In that regard, things are already off to a good start, as $352 million above the current funding level was included for NIH in the recently adopted continuing resolution. Overall, the $872 million in the temporary spending bill was the same amount authorized in the “21st Century Cures Act.”

The $4.8 billion in additional authorized funding would be directed to specific initiatives created by the Obama Administration: $1.4 billion for the Precision Medicine Initiative, $1.8 billion for the cancer moonshot, and $1.6 billion for the BRAIN Initiative.

The package also includes $1 billion for expanded opioid treatment programs. It calls for NIH to produce a comprehensive strategic plan and for the White House to form a new board to streamline regulations for universities and other grantees. Other new initiatives include a program to provide career opportunities for young scientists and incentives for certain areas of research, including fields where public and private investment in research is small compared to the cost of preventing and treating the disease.

The legislation passed the House with only 26 dissenting votes and passed the Senate with five Senators opposed.

S. 1177: Every Student Succeeds Act

This bill reauthorizes and amends the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). The bill addresses issues such as accountability and testing requirements, distribution and requirements for grants, fiscal accountability requirements, and the evaluation of teachers.

The bill provides states with increased flexibility and responsibility for developing accountability systems, deciding how federally required tests should be weighed, selecting additional measures of student and school performance, and implementing teacher evaluation systems.

It includes grants for providing language instruction educational programs, improving low-performing schools, and developing programs for American Indian and Alaska Native students. The bill provides rural school districts with increased flexibility in using federal funding. It also revises the Impact Aid formula.

The bill requires school districts to consult stakeholders in planning and implementing programs to improve student safety, health, well-being, and academic achievement.

It combines two existing charter school programs into one program that includes grants for high-quality charter schools, facilities financing assistance, and replication and expansion.

The bill provides states with flexibility in meeting maintenance of effort requirements for state and local education funding to supplement federal assistance.

The bill prohibits the Department of Education from imposing certain requirements on states or school districts seeking waivers from federal laws.

It provides that ESEA dollars may be used to improve early childhood education programs and specifies requirements to ensure that homeless youth have access to all services provided by the states and school districts.

S 1177 is sponsored by Senator Lamar Alexander. It become law on December 10, 2015.