U.S. Capitol building

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Congress returns, with a long science to-do list and not much time

Congress returns today from a 7-week summer break with a lengthy list of unfinished business, some of great interest to the U.S. research community—and just a few weeks to tackle it. Lawmakers aren’t likely to pare that list by much before they return to the campaign trail for a final push before Election Day on 8 November. But they will have a second shot when they return for a lame-duck session after voters have chosen a successor to President Barack Obama and a new Congress.

The one big responsibility Congress can’t shirk is passing some kind of spending bill to keep the government running for the 2017 fiscal year, which begins on 1 October (see table, below). But Republicans, who control both the House of Representatives and the Senate, don’t agree on whether to abide by an existing spending pact made with Obama, or to modify it to increase the defense budget and cut domestic programs. As a result, legislators this month are expected to put off a decision by temporarily extending 2016 spending levels into 2017 with a so-called continuing resolution (CR). Its duration is uncertain, but the most likely scenario is one that funds the government through late December. That would allow lawmakers to know whether they will be dealing with Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump before adopting a final 2017 spending plan.

Practically speaking, a CR means the budgets of federal research agencies will be frozen: Administrators won’t be able to start new programs or benefit from the spending hikes envisioned in some preliminary appropriations bills awaiting final action. They include a hefty proposed increase for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), another big boost for a NASA mission to a jovian moon, a new Coast Guard icebreaker that would enhance polar research, and a third midsized research vessel for the U.S. academic fleet. A CR also would leave hanging major disagreements between the House and Senate on whether to continue U.S. participation in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the costly international fusion project, and how much earth science NASA should carry out.

Here’s the scoop on some of the issues science lobbyists are tracking:

Funding for NIH and the cancer moonshot. Research groups are hoping lawmakers will give NIH its second substantial increase in a row after 12 years of flat budgets. A Senate committee has approved a 6% increase to $34.1 billion, a $2 billion jump, whereas a House panel has approved a 4% boost. Both proposals would boost Alzheimer’s disease research, with the Senate calling for a $400 million, 40% increase. They would also add $100 million to the president’s Precision Medicine Initiative, bringing the total to $300 million. But neither bill contains the $680 million that the White House requested for Vice President Joe Biden’s moonshot to accelerate progress against cancer.

Accelerating medical treatments. Proponents of a sweeping bill that the House passed to speed the discovery and development of new medical treatments hope the Senate will embrace at least some of its key provisions this year. Both the House bill, known as the 21st Century Cures Act, and a set of 19 smaller Senate bills endorse plans to create incentives and scale back regulatory requirements for certain high-priority treatments, such as drugs to treat rare, life-threatening infections. But the Senate has so far balked at a plan in the House Cures bill to boost NIH’s budget by $8.75 billion over 5 years through so-called mandatory spending mechanisms, which aren’t subject to annual appropriations. Senate leaders hope to win support for a shorter-term mandatory funding “surge” for high-priority research, including Biden’s cancer moonshot.

Zika funding. Public health groups and the Obama administration want Congress to resolve a deadlock over approving additional funding to combat the Zika virus before taking its next break. The administration had requested $1.9 billion in emergency funding to fund research into vaccines and treatments, help local health centers monitor outbreaks, and help localities control mosquitoes. Prior to Congress’s summer recess, a bipartisan group of lawmakers struck a deal to provide $1.1 billion in Zika funding, but the compromise died after House lawmakers attached provisions restricting use of the funding by groups that provide abortion services, defunding portions of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), and lifting some environmental regulations on pesticide spraying. (The White House and most Democrats in Congress objected to all of those provisions.) Now, as the first mosquito-related cases of Zika appear in Florida, some lawmakers are pushing to make sure the issue is resolved in any CR passed this month by Congress. Currently, Zika activities are being funded through money shifted from other programs, including those that were created to combat the Ebola outbreak.

New rules for the National Science Foundation (NSF). Both the House and the Senate have been working on legislation that would tweak an expired 2010 law, the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act, which sets funding targets and operational policy for NSF; the National Institute of Standards and Technology; the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; and government-wide science education programs. Now, science lobbyists face the challenge of trying to generate support for the Senate legislation, which they generally like, while fighting bills they oppose that have cleared the House. Critics—including Democrats and science groups—say the House bills would undermine peer review at NSF and force scientists to pass political litmus tests, as well as throttle back on curiosity-driven research. House Republicans counter that they just want to ensure that limited dollars are spent wisely and block the Obama administration’s politically motivated research agenda. The battle may not end this year.

The House and Senate are also at odds over NSF’s request to build two midsized research vessels. NSF says the ships will allow it to modernize the existing U.S. academic fleet, which is shrinking in overall size. House appropriations eliminated the $106 million request—which would cover less than half the total cost—whereas Senate appropriators added $53 million to allow NSF to start building a third ship. NSF officials believe that two ships are adequate, but add that they are prepared to follow whatever Congress directs them to do. The House bill would cut NSF’s overall budget by $57 million, to $7.4 billion, whereas the Senate bill would boost it by $46 million. Both totals are well below the administration’s request for a $500 million increase.

Easing the “administrative burden” on universities. This bland phrase belies the academic community’s sense of urgency about easing regulations that govern federally funded research done on campus. A succession of blue-ribbon panels has implored the government to streamline the process of applying and accounting for federal grants, and several House and Senate bills offer a range of reforms. But finding common ground may be difficult.

A new icebreaker? The United States is down to just one heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, after its twin, the Polar Sea, was shut down in 2010. As a result, experts say, the United States is losing the ability to supply Antarctic bases and conduct Arctic science, even as other nations expand their polar fleets. But a new heavy icebreaker is expected to cost $1 billion. The White House wants to start building a replacement by 2020, and a Senate spending panel has put the needed funds into a 2017 defense spending bill. But House appropriators are skeptical.

Energy research funding. Both House and Senate appropriators have given the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) basic research wing, the Office of Science, a 1% bump, to $5.4 billion, for 2017. But the chambers disagree on how that money, short of Obama’s 4% request, should be spent. For example, the Senate would cut DOE’s fusion budget by about one-third and cancel money for ITER; the House would back ITER and boost fusion spending by 3%, to $450 million.

Researchers and advocates are also eyeing House-Senate negotiations over a major energy bill that would set future funding targets for the Office of Science, as well as encourage the development of energy resources—a goal hailed by industry. But Obama has threatened to veto any bill that weakens environmental protections.

Meanwhile, at the White House. … Congress is a bystander on some of the most momentous research issues that are in play. The Obama administration is rushing to complete a host of new regulations, including rules on greenhouse gas emissions and environmental protection (which have triggered highly publicized fights with Republicans). Biomedical scientists are most interested in something not generating major headlines: a potential update of the so-called Common Rule on protecting human research subjects. Critics warn that, by tightening consent requirements, the proposed update could endanger certain types of research. They want regulators to go back to the drawing board.

White House/Congress

With reporting by Jeffrey Mervis, Jocelyn Kaiser, Adrian Cho, Kelly Servick, Carolyn Gramling, and David Malakoff.