The U.S. Coast Gaurd’s Polar Star, the only heavy icebreaker in the fleet, could soon have a sister ship thanks to a massive defense spending bill.

U.S. Coast Guard/Chief Petty Officer David Mosley

Massive U.S. defense bill includes a bevy of research-related provisions

Congress is poised to tell the U.S. military to identify bases that are most threatened by climate change and give it limited new authority to accelerate the use of battlefield medical treatments that have not been fully approved by safety regulators. The provisions are part of a mammoth defense policy bill that the House of Representatives approved on Tuesday.

The bill also calls for building a new heavy icebreaker able to operate in polar seas—an item long on the wish list of scientists who work in the Antarctic and Arctic. And it establishes a new pilot program that would enable government scientists working at federal defense laboratories to receive up to $500,000 per year in royalties if they produce a commercially valuable invention. But lawmakers rejected an effort to place limits on Congress’ ability to direct funding to specific medical research programs run by the military, and a proposal to create a new space warfare service dubbed the U.S. Space Corps.

Those are just some of the research-related provisions in the 2400-page National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2018, which is expected to become law later this year after passage by the Senate. The influential measure sets policy and budget levels for the Department of Defense (DOD) and related agencies (although a separate appropriations bill actually sets spending levels). Congress has passed and the president has signed an NDAA every year for more than 50 years, making it one of the few legislative sure bets.

This year’s NDAA calls for spending $692 billion on defense-related programs in the 2018 fiscal year that began on 1 October. That would be a 12%, $74 billion boost over current levels, and $26 billion above the White House’s request. But the bill also calls for spending about $77 billion more on defense than allowed by current caps on federal spending. Congress would have to reach a deal to break those caps before lawmakers can appropriate the full funding called for by the NDAA. It’s not yet clear whether such a deal will materialize; Democrats in Congress have called for any increases in defense spending to be accompanied by similar increases in civilian budgets.

Here are some research-related highlights from the bill:

  • Climate change: Conservative lawmakers failed to remove a provision that requires the Pentagon to produce a report that identifies “vulnerabilities to military installations and combatant commander requirements resulting from climate change over the next 20 years.” Each of the five services has 1 year to identify “the ten most vulnerable military installations … based on the effects of rising sea tides, increased flooding, drought, desertification, wildfires, thawing permafrost,” and other factors.
  • Battlefield medical treatments: An earlier version would have given the Pentagon broad new power to authorize the use of drugs and medical devices that have not yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But that clause drew substantial opposition from lawmakers concerned that it would undermine FDA’s authority and lead to the use of unsafe products. Backers of the provision were frustrated by what they saw as FDA’s slow pace in approving products, such as freeze-dried blood plasma, that military doctors believed were ready for safe use. In the end, lawmakers reached a compromise: Language accompanying the bill makes it clear that the provision applies narrowly to “medical products for battlefield wounds and injuries,” and that Congress will not finalize the NDAA until it approves a second piece of legislation (H.R. 4374) that establishes a process for DOD and FDA to work together to accelerate approval of “emergency use” of some drugs and devices.
  • New icebreaker: The United States now has a single heavy icebreaker able to operate in polar seas, the aging Polar Star, and one medium polar icebreaker, the Healy. As a result, researchers have long warned that the United States is losing the ability to supply Antarctic bases and conduct Arctic science, even as other nations expand their polar fleets. For years, lawmakers have been giving the U.S. Coast Guard, which operates the ships, relatively small amounts of money to plan for a new heavy icebreaker. But the price tag for construction—likely about $1 billion—has made lawmakers skittish. Part of the problem has been deciding which federal agency would cough up the money, given that Coast Guard budgets typically aren’t large enough to handle such outlays. Lawmakers agreed this year to allow the military to build the ship for the Coast Guard, assuming appropriators provide the funding. That should give the project a major push, with some advocates hoping the new ship will be operational by the early 2020s. But lawmakers also said they don’t want DOD paying for any additional icebreakers once this one is built.
  • Royalty pilot: Current law gives the federal government ownership of inventions made at government laboratories. But their performance has always been anemic compared with the commercial payoff from federally funded research at U.S. universities. Congress is giving the labs added incentives to license patents and other intellectual property to private firms. The NDAA requires the secretary of defense to create a 5-year pilot program that would raise the minimum share of royalty payments to scientist inventors to 20% of the total revenues—up to $500,000 per year—from the current floor of 15% and an annual cap of $150,000. Such a system would bring the military labs more in line with many universities, which divvy the payments equally among the institution, the inventor, and the inventor’s academic department. The changes are also meant to sharpen the incentives for researchers and laboratories to work on projects that might have broad commercial applications.
  • Congressionally directed medical research: For years, lawmakers have inserted language into DOD spending bills requiring the military to spend money on specific areas of biomedical research, such as breast cancer or brain injuries. Overall, Congress has provided nearly $12 billion for such “directed” research since 1992, and annual funding on the projects has doubled since 2013, to nearly $1 billion. But key lawmakers on the House and Senate armed services committees have long complained that many projects have little direct relevance to national security and aren’t a priority for the Pentagon. So this year, they moved to prohibit such spending unless the secretary of defense certified that it was “directly designed to protect, enhance, or restore the health and safety of members of the Armed Forces.” Advocates pushed back, and the result was a plea for restraint. A report accompanying the bill asks lawmakers to request funding for “only those medical research and development projects that protect and enhance military readiness or restore the health and safety of members of the Armed Forces.” (In related moves, lawmakers rejected an attempt to launch a $25 million study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain disease best known from studies of professional football players, and a study of tick-borne diseases.)
  • Pollution studies: Numerous cases of drinking water contamination have popped up on and around U.S. military bases that used fire-fighting foams containing chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyls. NDAA requires the Pentagon to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on “a study on the health effects of individuals who have been exposed” to the chemicals.
  • Space Corps: Unhappy with how the U.S. Air Force and other parts of the Pentagon have handled the military’s capabilities to fight a war in space, some lawmakers proposed an entirely new service, the U.S. Space Corps, that would oversee research, development, and deployment of new space systems. But fierce opposition from Pentagon officials and others forced space corps advocates to back down. Instead, NDAA requires the Pentagon to study the idea, as well as other strategies for improving U.S. capabilities in space.