STEM & Innovation

The latest news and legislative activity affecting science, education, R&D and high-tech innovation for startups and entrepreneurs

November 24, 2020
Legislative Updates

Congressional Changes Impacting Legislation

Rep. José Serrano (D-NY), the House’s lead appropriator for NASA, the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and National Institute of Standards and Technology is retiring. Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA) is next in line for his job. Meanwhile in the Senate, the next head of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee is expected to be Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) from a big fossil fuel state who will likely seek to thread the needle on advancing energy innovation while maintaining access to affordable, reliable power. He is viewed as less progressive as his predecessor and current Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). His ranking colleague will continue to be Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV). Together Murkowski and Manchin had sought to advance a sweeping policy update for DOE for years and now with her departure, it is likely this legislation will not become law. Although a deal has reportedly been reached on an amendment to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, which stalled the legislation this spring, there is little time to reconcile the bill with the House’s clean energy bill during the lame-duck session.

Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees NOAA and NSF, lost his seat to former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who began his career as a petroleum geologist. This impacts another piece of legislation as Gardner was a main sponsor of the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, a major cross-agency science policy update for STEM and other programs that Congress passed in 2016. Usually bipartisan, it needs a champion to move through Congress. Also, on a larger scale if the Democrats win both Georgia seats on January 5, they will flip the chamber and shift energy policy efforts toward bolder moves on environmental stewardship and clean energy. However, fossil fuels are still key in any realistic effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in an economy still dependent on these fuels.

Science Funding

Some Republicans have signaled support for expanding federal funding of energy innovation as a way to combat climate change, which has drawn strong support from Democrats and the Biden team. Other potential efforts include a major semiconductor R&D and microelectronics production initiative as part of the defense bill and the Endless Frontier Act, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senator Todd Young (R-IN), that aims to spend $100 billion over five years on technologies through an enormous new directorate tied to the National Science Foundation. Yet another pending measure is the House Democrats’ ambitious climate plan that includes major spending increases on R&D and technology commercialization, aspects of which are reflected in a clean energy bill the House passed largely along party lines in September. Also, the House FY2021 Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations bill includes $23.5 billion for the Department of Energy (DOE) in one-time “emergency” stimulus funding. However, House Science Committee Republicans oppose such plans and instead propose doubling budgets for earlier-stage research across various agencies.

Biden Leadership

President-elect Joe Biden has several plans on science and innovation, including rejoining the Paris climate agreement, which the U.S. formally exited on November 4 and to which includes getting the country to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. His plan calls for developing clean light rail and bus systems, encourage production of electric car batteries, and boost fuel economy standards, with the hopes of creating millions of union jobs that pay at least $15 per hour. The plan would require $2 trillion in spending over four years and reverse the Trump administration’s ease of environmental rules and set up an environmental and climate justice division within the U.S. Department of Justice. President-elect Biden’s plan would allocate 40% of the funding to support communities disproportionately affected by climate change.

Biden also supports increased R&D initiatives, but the details on his funding lines won’t surface until he submits his first budget proposal in early February. Within days of his inauguration, Biden is likely to immediately rescind an October memo from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), arguing that the Clean Air Act gives states flexibility to administer air pollution requirements and saying some exemptions are appropriate. Another likely quick action is expected to quell an April 2018 memo on metrics known as significant impact levels, which set thresholds for how much air pollution facilities can produce when expanding or upgrading without degrading air quality. He is also expected to pick someone to head the EPA who is the diametric opposite of the current administrator, Andrew Wheeler, who previously lobbied against Obama regulations.

TRANSPORTATION

Infrastructure Bill

The Surface Transportation bill expires September 2021 and both the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (T&I) and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) passed bipartisan bills. However, neither will move during the lame-duck session. They should be top of the agenda next year with more of a shift back toward balancing rural and urban funding formulas, but three other committees have yet to draft their titles of the bill, which will slow down the process. Senator Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV) will take over as Chair of EPW and Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) as Ranking. The Highway Trust Fund will be insolvent soon and the Invest Act provided $145 billion for the Highway Trust Fund in House bill but there is no way to finance that authorization, a major hurdle toward enactment. We are currently in an extension for a year and could have many more on the horizon as Congress extended the historic SAFETEA-LU bill 10 times and the MAC21 5 times over the years.

Infrastructure Goals

Biden wants a huge infrastructure package that includes broadband, light rail, infrastructure for schools, bridges and water, green energy and innovation. The last time the gas tax was raised — which funds the Highway Trust Fund — was 1993. Biden voted for this back then, but on the campaign, he said that he did not think the will is there to raise that again. The key Democratic players in moving an infrastructure package who will need to work closely with the Biden administration to gain an upper hand in negotiating with the Senate include: T&I Chair DeFazio (D-OR) and Ways and Means Committee Chair Neal (D-MA) along with Subcommittee Chair Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC).

October 13, 2020
Legislative Updates

Hyperloop Innovation in West Virginia

Virgin Hyperloop One just announced it will build a certification center in West Virginia for the high-speed transportation system that uses enclosed pods to move passengers and cargo at over 600 mph (960 km/h). The company had received bids from more than a dozen states in the past year to build a 6-mile (9.7-kilometer) testing track and other safety facilities over hundreds of acres for the electromagnetic levitation transportation technology. Meanwhile, the Hyperloop Transportation Technology (HyperloopTT) completed its feasibility study with NOACA last year, demonstrating significant economic impact of building a hyperloop route from Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Chicago with potential stops in Youngstown and Toledo along the way.

NSF Budget in FY2021

On August 12, the House passed a spending bill for FY2021 that proposes raising the budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to $8.5 billion (a 3% increase) to expand education and research programs. The House Appropriations Committee released a report detailing recommendations on how the funds should be allocated, including addressing gaps in representation and concentrations. The report dictates that funds should at least remain at FY2020 funding levels for the Social Behavioral and Economic Sciences, “10 Big Ideas” framework and Astronomy and Artificial Intelligence disciplines. It also directs an increase in funding for the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research program, which helps states that historically receive a small share in federal funding.

NSF STEM Programs in FY2021

The same House bill also recommends increasing the budget by 3% for efforts that support underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. The report calls on NSF to increase the budgets of Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program, the Louis Stoke Alliances for Minority Participaction, Tribal Colleges and the Hispanic Serving Institutions program. These programs support the advancement and representation of minorities in STEM fields. It also included concern over the severe underrepresentation of Hispanic Ph.D. graduates in STEM fields and lack of programs for Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving institutions. The report urges NSF to increase grants to address these concerns. Despite these increases, they still fall short of the targets proposed in the bipartisan RISE Act, which recommends Congress distribute about $25 billion in research recovery funds across science agencies.

Department of Education STEM Grants

On September 30th, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that the Department of Education will provide nearly $100 million in grant awards to school districts, higher education institutions and nonprofits.  Of the $100 million, $23.8 million was dedicated to 12 awards under the Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) Program, specifically for projects that prepare educators to teach science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), with an emphasis on computer science.

Department of Energy

This summer, the House passed a bill that would provide mostly level funding for the Office of Science and its main component programs. The most notable proposed change is a 4% increase for the Advanced Scientific Computing Research program. Congress already provided $100 million to the office in March to support pandemic-related research. House Democrats have also included $6.25 billion in advance funding for 67 projects as part of a set of “emergency” economic stimulus measures they appended to the House’s DOE spending bill over Republican objections. Some of these projects are also experiencing pandemic-related cost increases. Further complicating matters, the House’s non-emergency proposals for some projects involve unexpected cuts, suggesting the Democrats may have shifted funding intended for them into the emergency package.

Research at Risk

U.S. scientists are concerned that recent Trump administration policies will cause emigration of U.S. scientists and researchers, leading to a loss in innovation. Tensions between the U.S. and China are high as some in Congress have accused Chinese researchers and students of using U.S. intelligence and intellectual property at the behest of the Chinese government. There are on-going investigations into U.S. researchers with ties to China at NIH and NSF for violating grant rules on research integrity. NIH investigated 189 researchers for impropriety in June, and 93% had ties to China and 82% were of Asian descent. Within the past two months, four Chinese researchers were arrested on charges of visa fraud. The investigations are causing fear and uncertainty in the scientific community and causing accusations of racial profiling, which the administration has denied.

August 18, 2020
Legislative Updates

Secretary of Education Expands STEM Opportunities

On August 10, Secretary DeVos announced $3.9 million in new grants to improve the science and engineering programs of 17 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). The initiative is part of the Department of Education’s Minority Science and Engineering Improvement Program (MSEIP), which aims to increase the number of minority graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs. The grants would go to private and public nonprofit institutions with more than 50% of minority enrollments, professional scientific societies, nonprofit science-oriented organizations, and higher education institutions that provide necessary services or special training to minority institutions.

Pandemic Impacts Scientific Research

Research institutes are experiencing unprecedented damage, estimating that the costs for 2020 alone will top tens of billions of dollars. As a result, institutions have joined forces and called upon Congress for economic relief to reopen labs, mitigate project delay costs, and alleviate the institutions’ strained resources. Projects that were years in the making have had to revert to the starting point and the pandemic has caused the cancellation of critical field work. Federal science programs are currently prioritizing funds and balancing project budgets to mitigate losses. Science advocacy associations requested $47 billion in the next stimulus package for financial assistance to universities and students, and $26 billion to help restart labs and project delays. While the third stimulus package enacted in March provided $14 billion to universities, it did not include enough funding to address losses of science researchers. Current proposals in Congress do address this need, with the Republican proposal including $10 billion for research recovery while the House bill that passed in May called the HEROES Act allocated $4 billion. Research groups, however, recommend that the next stimulus package include at least $25 billion for science issues, including $10 billion for NIH.