Science Policy Legislation of the 115th Congress

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Publication date: 
6 February 2019
Number: 
12

Over the past two years, Congress passed legislation updating and endorsing a wide range of federal R&D activities, including marquee bills focused on quantum information science, energy research, weather forecasting, and hazard preparedness.

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Image credit – Architect of the Capitol

During the 115th Congress, lawmakers advanced a variety of science policy bills, ushering many of them into law. Two minor bills designed to promote women’s participation in STEM fields were among the first bills that President Trump signed after taking office. And, as part of a flurry of activity as the Congress came to a close in December, it passed several significant bills pertaining to science and STEM education.

Over the course of any given Congress, it can be difficult to keep tabs on what legislative developments will actually affect science, and what those effects might be. Some bills receive widespread publicity but never advance, while others make it past the finish line with little fanfare. Of the bills that do become law, it can be hard to distinguish between ones that make important changes and those that mainly endorse existing programs. However, even laws that make few concrete changes can still weigh on agency decision-making by signaling strong congressional interest in certain matters. By the same token, even some bills that do not become law can have a similar effect.

In this overview, FYI takes a broad look back on the science policy legislation of the last two years, focusing on bills pertinent to the physical sciences. It does not review funding legislation, which is covered in detail in dedicated bulletins.

For a full list of bills that FYI tracked during the 115th Congress, see here. And, as legislation makes its way forward during the 116th Congress, keep up to date using FYI’s Federal Science Bill Tracker.

A variety of enacted bills support R&D programs

National Quantum Initiative Act, enacted Dec. 21, 2018 — This act creates a quantum information science (QIS) R&D initiative spanning the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Department of Energy, and National Science Foundation, and it directs the White House to establish interagency coordination and advisory mechanisms. For further information, see FYI’s coverage here. Separately, Congress directed the Department of Defense to pursue a coordinated QIS R&D program through the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, enacted in August 2018. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) also introduced a separate QIS-related bill for DOD that did not advance.

DOE Research and Innovation Act, enacted Sept. 28, 2018 — This act sets policy for the DOE Office of Science. While most provisions represent endorsements of current programs, the law does require DOE to revive its discontinued low dose radiation research program and diversify its fusion energy research program. For further information, see FYI’s coverage here.

Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, enacted Sept. 28, 2018 — This act directs DOE to aid private industry in developing “advanced” nuclear reactors. The most far-reaching provision calls for the department to construct a major fast-neutron reactor for testing materials and fuels intended for use in certain kinds of advanced reactors. A separate bill, the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, was enacted on Jan. 14, 2019. It sets milestone deadlines for ongoing revisions to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing procedures that aim to aid the commercialization of non-traditional reactor designs. Though other bills intended to promote advanced reactor development did not become law, such as the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, new versions may well be introduced in the current Congress. For further information, see FYI’s coverage here.

Congress also considered but did not pass a variety of other legislation related to DOE R&D:

  • Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) reintroduced a bipartisan bill that nearly became law at the end of the 114th Congress and would have set policy for the entirety of DOE. Although it did not advance this time, a number of its R&D-related provisions were incorporated into the DOE Research and Innovation Act.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee initiated an effort aimed at a thoroughgoing “modernization” of DOE, but no legislation ever emerged from it. Committee Democrats, who now control the legislative agenda, showed little enthusiasm for the project.
  • The House Science Committee advanced a number of bipartisan bills supporting DOE Office of Science programs and facility upgrades. The committee also advanced a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, implicitly rejecting the Trump administration’s proposals to close the agency down.
  • Several bipartisan bills aimed to augment DOE’s mechanisms for fostering collaborations between national laboratories and private industry, including one that would have set up a nonprofit foundation that could solicit contributions from private entities to finance R&D projects.

National Defense Authorization Acts for Fiscal Year 2018 and Fiscal Year 2019, enacted Dec. 12, 2017, and Aug. 13, 2018, respectively — These acts, which provide broad updates to U.S. defense policy, build on reforms enacted through the fiscal year 2017 act to enhance the Defense Department’s ability to develop technologies considered essential to keeping apace with emerging military rivals. The acts also contain numerous miscellaneous provisions related to defense R&D, summarized in FYI’s coverage here and here.

NASA Transition Authorization Act, enacted March 21, 2017 — This act sets agency-wide policies for NASA, with the aim of ensuring continuity in the agency’s mission following the November 2016 election. It also establishes the search for life beyond the Earth as one of the agency’s central objectives. For further information, see FYI’s coverage here. Notwithstanding the bill’s enactment, the Trump administration swiftly set out to reorient NASA’s near-term exploration activities toward the Moon and the space around it. A follow-on policy bill introduced in the Senate in December signaled a willingness to endorse that change, while a similarly broad policy bill introduced in the House last April recommended funding for lunar exploration but did not explicitly authorize a program. Neither bill received a floor vote in either chamber.

The House Science Committee also worked on legislation that did not become law for two science agencies under its jurisdiction:

  • A bipartisan bill setting policy for NIST made it through the House but was not considered by the Senate.
  • An effort announced early in the Congress to update policy for NSF ultimately failed to produce a bill.

Weather and natural hazards were a major focus

Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act, enacted April 18, 2017 — This act establishes a multi-pronged agenda for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to bolster U.S. weather forecasting capabilities. It includes provisions that establish a “subseasonal and seasonal” forecasting program within the National Weather Service, authorize a program to purchase commercial weather data, and enhance tsunami early warning capabilities. For further information, see FYI’s coverage here.

National Integrated Drought Information System Reauthorization Act, enacted Jan. 7, 2019 — This act renews congressional backing for NOAA’s drought information system and amends the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act. The amendments include authorizations for NOAA to create an Earth Prediction Innovation Center and make use of a temporary transaction authority that will give it greater flexibility to conduct R&D projects in support of its next-generation weather satellite architecture.

National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program Reauthorization Act, enacted Dec. 11, 2018 — This act updates policy for the multiagency program for the first time since 2004, further codifying its shift from prediction of earthquakes to providing near-term early warning. It also directs the U.S. Geological Survey to develop a five-year management plan for the national seismological monitoring network.

Congress also considered a number of other bills related to natural hazards legislation, and appears poised to continue those efforts. Bills that did not become law include:

Education bills aimed to boost the skilled technical workforce

Innovations in Mentoring, Training, and Apprenticeships Act, enacted Dec. 31, 2018 — This act directs NSF to take a number of steps in support of the “skilled technical workforce,” defined as “workers with high school diplomas and two-year technical training or certifications who employ significant levels of STEM knowledge in their jobs.” Such jobs have been a major focus for STEM education policy under the Trump administration.

Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, enacted July 31, 2018 — This act renews congressional backing for the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act for the first time since 2006. The Perkins CTE Act sets policy for Department of Education programs that promote training for the skilled technical workforce. Among its provisions, the new law directs the department to establish an “Innovation and Modernization” competitive grant program to identify and support efforts to “align workforce skills with labor market needs.” For further information, see FYI’s coverage here.

Failed bills had major implications for regulatory policy

Two controversial bills that aimed to overhaul how the Environmental Protection Agency incorporates science into regulatory decision-making did not become law: the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment (HONEST) Act and the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act. The bills respectively called for EPA to rely only on research with publicly available data in crafting new rules and to prohibit individuals holding an EPA grant from serving on its main science advisory committee. Although the bills were not enacted, EPA has advanced similar policies on its own initiative.

Little came of other proposed federal research policy reforms

A number of bills sought to reform policies governing research conducted with government funding, but none made substantial progress through the legislative process. They included:

  • A bill introduced by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) to reform the review process for federal research grant applications. It would have required review panels to include at least one individual not working in the field of the application and at least one other to serve as a “taxpayer advocate.” It also would have required all applications to be made public.
  • A bill to require publications deriving from federally funded research to be made publicly available after an embargo period.
  • A bill to reinforce federal agencies’ scientific integrity policies.

Via a provision in fiscal year 2018 appropriations legislation, Congress also blocked the Trump administration’s proposal to place a strict cap on the percentage of research costs that the National Institutes of Health could reimburse for grantee institutions' facilities and administrative costs. Noting that the legislation had made it “illegal” to even consider changing NIH’s reimbursement rates for such costs, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told reporters in introducing the president's fiscal year 2019 budget request that he had “learned a really valuable lesson” from Congress’ reaction.

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