President Signs National Defense Bill Backing Science Research and Collaboration

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Publication date: 
4 December 2015

President Obama signed into law the final 2016 defense policy authorization bill after vetoing an earlier version. The law includes a number of provisions supporting scientific research and collaboration at the Departments of Defense and Energy, including an easing of conference travel restrictions on federal scientists and engineers.

After “a roller coaster” of efforts this year, as House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) put it, the House easily cleared a revised FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act on Nov. 5. The Senate followed suit on Nov. 10, and President Obama signed the Act into law on Nov. 25. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) highlighted it as the most important defense policy bill in years and said it was “an example of working not only on both sides of the aisle, but on both sides of the Capitol.

Law calls for a revision of policies that keep federal scientists from attending scientific conferences

Among science highlights from the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act and its accompanying Joint Explanatory Statement, the bill calls for “expedited approval for attendance at conferences in support of science and innovation activities” at the Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Expressing deep concern that conference attendance from the Army Research Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories had declined precipitously, the Joint Explanatory Statement reads:

The report highlights that such a drop in attendance risks a decline in the quality of scientific research, difficulty in recruiting and retaining qualified scientists and engineers, and a diminished leadership role for the two departments within the global science and technology community.

The report continues with direction for the DOD and NNSA:

In response to these findings and concerns, we direct the Secretaries of Defense and Energy to revise current policies within the Department of Defense and National Nuclear Security Administration… [and] to ensure that any decisions to disapprove conference attendance … are made if and only if the appropriate officials determine that the disapproval would have a net positive impact on research and development and on program management quality. … We recommend that … laboratory and test center directors be given the authority to approve conference attendance, provided that the attendance would meet the mission of the laboratory or test center and that sufficient laboratory or test center funds are available.

Law supports scientific research and collaboration in new ways

In other science highlights, the law:

  • Establishes a Centers for Science, Technology, and Engineering Partnership program “to enhance the Department of Defense laboratories with innovative academic and industry partners in research and development activities”;
  • Creates a defense laboratory modernization pilot program that allows the Secretary of Defense to reallocate up to $150 million in R&D funding each year to military construction projects for any DOD Science and Technology Reinvention Laboratory or federally funded research and development center;
  • Allows the Secretary of Energy in consultation with the directors of the national security laboratories to establish a microlab pilot program, to approve microlabs in close proximity to national security laboratories that are “accessible to the public for the purpose of enhancing collaboration with regional research groups; accelerating technology transfer from national security laboratories to the marketplace; and promoting regional workforce development through science, technology, engineering, and mathematics instruction and training”;
  • Requires the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence to “jointly develop and implement a space science and technology strategy” on a biennial basis, as needed;
  • Includes a sense of Congress that the Department of Defense “explore using existing authorities for all Federally Funded Research and Development Centers [and other defense laboratories] to help facilitate and shape a high quality scientific and technical workforce that can support the Department’s needs”; and
  • Includes a finding of Congress that “the country’s scientific and technical workforce is a matter of national security” and that the Secretary of Defense should “explore using existing authorities for promoting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs.”

Obama vetoed first version of the defense policy bill over budget issues

Obama vetoed an earlier version of the bill in October because it authorized funding for an overseas military account in excess of existing defense spending caps. In his view, the bill violated the spirit of a 2011 budget sequester law that sets limits on defense and non-defense spending each year. These concerns were allayed when Congress passed a major budget relief bill in October amending the sequester law for two years.

As FYI reported, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 increased both defense and non-defense spending caps for FY 2016 and FY 2017. The two-year budget agreement provided Congressional Republicans with much of what they wanted in new defense spending, including $40 billion in additional ‘regular order’ spending and another $16 billion through an overseas military operations account.

Proposal to cut funding for defense-wide basic research in FY 2016, but final decision still lies ahead

Congress has historically passed a defense policy bill each year. Alongside its annual defense funding bill, the National Defense Authorization Act provides direction for the DOD, including the creation of new initiatives and programs as well as the reorganization of existing ones. While this year’s law also proposes funding levels for accounts, including cuts to funding for defense-wide basic research by 4.3 percent below the FY 2015 funded level, final funding decisions will be left up to the defense funding bill. The FY 2016 defense funding bill is likely to be part of a broader government-wide funding bill that Congress is expected to consider in December.