Among his final actions in office over the past month, President Obama signed three major research-related bills into law: the 21st Century Cures Act, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, and the National Defense Authorization Act.
During its lame duck session following the November election, the 114th Congress passed three major bills with provisions that will shape federal R&D policy over the coming years: the 21st Century Cures Act, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (AICA), and the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). While President Obama greeted the Cures Act as an important contribution to his agenda for science and technology, he signed the AICA without fanfare and expressed reservations about the NDAA.
Cures Act product of bipartisan push by White House and Congress
Obama signed the Cures Act on Dec. 13 at a White House ceremony, flanked by the vice president and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle.
As reported in FYI 2016 #150, among its numerous provisions, the act allocates $4.8 billion over 10 years to the National Institutes of Health in support of the Obama administration’s Cancer Moonshot, BRAIN, and Precision Medicine Initiatives, and creates a Research Policy Board tasked with identifying means of reducing administrative burdens.
At the signing ceremony, Obama lauded the bill as a contribution to his larger, presidency-spanning agenda for research and innovation:
Over the last eight years, one of my highest priorities as President has been to unleash the full force of American innovation to some of the biggest challenges that we face. That meant restoring science to its rightful place. It meant funding the research and development that’s always kept America on the cutting edge. It’s meant investing in clean energy that’s created a steady stream of good jobs and helped America become the world’s leader in combatting climate change. It meant investing in the medical breakthroughs that have the power to cure disease and help all of us live healthier, longer lives.
So I started the 2016 State of the Union address by saying we might be able to surprise some cynics and deliver bipartisan action on the opioid epidemic. And in that same speech, I put Joe in charge of mission control on a new Cancer Moonshot. And today, with the 21st Century Cures Act, we are making good on both of those efforts. We are bringing to reality the possibility of new breakthroughs to some of the greatest health challenges of our time.
Vice President Joe Biden focused his remarks on the Cancer Moonshot initiative, underscoring his hope that the Cures Act will help change the culture of cancer research and quicken its pace:
As part of the Moonshoot, we set up what's called a Blue Ribbon Panel to review what should be the scientific priorities as we tackle this to try to end cancer as we know it. We'll try to do in the next five years what ordinarily would take ten years. … And in the process, it will fundamentally, I believe, change the culture of our fight against cancer, and inject an overwhelmingly sense of the urgency, or, as the President often says, the urgency of now.
AICA result of bipartisan push by Senate Commerce Committee
On Jan. 6, Obama signed the AICA into law, and the White House noted the occurrence with a brief statement. Unlike the Cures Act, with which the president and vice president were personally engaged, the push to develop and pass the AICA primarily came from Congress. This contrasts with the initial COMPETES Act of 2007, which grew out of President George W. Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative.
Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Gary Peters (D-MI) of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee took the lead in drafting the AICA and struck a bipartisan tone that contrasted with the House Science Committee’s approach. A joint press release by Gardner and Peters reacting to the president’s action notes that the AICA is the first major update to federal research policy originating from the Commerce Committee in over a decade.
The final legislation represents a compromise with the House. The majority staff of the House Science Committee also issued a press release responding to Obama's signature, stating that the legislation “incorporates Chairman Smith’s national interest criterion as part of the National Science Foundation (NSF) merit review process” and “reforms NSF major research facility construction to prevent future nine-figure cost overruns and prohibit use of taxpayer funds for liquor, lobbyists and foreign travel.” However, these provisions were watered down from their original form in order to gain bipartisan support.
FYI 2016 #156 for a summary of the AICA’s provisions and its legislative history.
President signs NDAA despite reservations
On Dec. 23, Obama signed the NDAA for fiscal year 2017, although he conveyed various concerns about the legislation in a statement. Among them are that the act makes considerable changes to the organizational structure of DOD.
Notably, the Senate successfully pushed to include a provision that creates new positions with responsibilities for R&D and acquisition management. In a Dec. 12 letter to the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, Defense Secretary Ash Carter argued that this restructuring is potentially damaging:
I remain deeply concerned about section 901, which directs the reorganization of the position of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (USD AT&L) by February 2018 into two separate USDs, one for 'Research and Engineering' and another for 'Acquisition & Sustainment.' Segregating responsibilities for the different phases of a product life cycle is a mistake that will undo years of important reforms to build the best product and innovation life cycle.
Among his numerous other reservations, Carter also criticized provisions related to contractor approval of R&D expenditures and the zeroing out of authorized R&D funds for the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental. However, Carter ultimately recommended the president sign the bill “because of the recognition of the need for certainty during this period of transition, as well as the continued authorization for our important work …”
See FYI 2016 #152 for a summary of the act’s various R&D-related provisions.