Research spending may be the only bright spot for US science after election sets up a divided government | Science
This week, American voters appear to have ended Democratic control of Congress, with Republicans now in favor of winning back at least the House of Representatives, if not the Senate. And that could mean a bumpy ride for researchers over the next 2 years.
The November 8 midterm election results will likely pave the way for aggressive Republican-led investigations into how the National Institutes of Health (NIH) responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and whether a lab leak in China also led to disaster. like a closer look at President Joe Biden’s efforts to fight climate change and keep pace with China’s push to become a tech superpower. Republican control of the House also increases the likelihood of political gridlock, ruling out major new policy initiatives — such as federal spending cuts or new climate regulations — by either party.
But science advocates hope the partisan battles and standoff won’t undermine traditional bipartisan support for research funding. If they’re right, the new Congress, which begins its two-year term in January, could come together to provide stable budgets — and perhaps even funding increases — to federal research agencies.
This week’s election did not generate a “red wave” that would have given Republicans the hard numbers to roll back parts of Biden’s agenda. Instead, they are about to win back the House by maybe only half a dozen seats. A runoff election next month in Georgia could determine which party leads the equally divided Senate.
Maintaining Democratic control of the Senate would make it difficult for Republicans to pursue their legislative agenda. Instead, a Republican-led House could pass “courier” bills: legislation that has no chance of becoming law but showcases their political ethos ahead of the 2024 presidential election. In science, for example, some Republican lawmakers have talked about banning federal funding for certain types of research that could create more dangerous pathogens or reducing spending on environmental and climate research.
House Republicans also vowed to question Anthony Fauci, the soon-to-retire director of the NIH’s institute of infectious diseases, about his role in the country’s response to COVID-19, and to check whether the funded work by the United States at a research institute in Wuhan, China, played a role in starting the pandemic. They also want to use the hearings to attack the Biden administration’s efforts to move away from fossil fuels. It will likely be difficult, however, for Republicans to translate these inquiries into new policy.
Whichever party eventually takes control in the House and Senate, the majorities will continue to be narrow. Science advocates hope this will help promote at least some bipartisan cooperation on research spending.
The first signs could come next week, when the current Congress attempts to complete work on a massive bill that would set spending levels for all federal agencies in fiscal year 2023, which began Oct. 1. . (Federal agencies are now subject to a spending freeze that expires Dec. 16, and it’s been years since Congress passed individual spending bills for groups of agencies.)
Any deal could have lasting effects: 2023 numbers could become the benchmark for spending in each of the next two fiscal years if lawmakers can’t agree on funding levels and simply freeze budgets in place. “So [the 2023 spending bill] is really important,” says Matt Owens of the Association of American Universities, which represents 66 leading research institutes. And if traffic jams cause Congress to shut down for the next 2 years, he adds, the 2023 numbers could end up being “the high point of science.”
Scientific groups expect much more from the new Congress. They are pushing for double-digit annual funding increases for several research agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), called for in a recently passed CHIPS and Science Act. They would also like to see the NIH budget keep pace with inflation, if not more. The outcome will be shaped by who ends up leading the Senate and House appropriations committees, a composition that won’t be set until later this year, as well as party leaders’ decisions on overall spending levels.
Science advocates are generally happy with the likely next chair of the House science committee if Republicans take the chamber, Rep. Frank Lucas (OK). Currently the top Republican on the panel, Lucas has a history of working closely with Democrats to craft broadly bipartisan bills.
Under his leadership, the science committee is expected to take a hard look at how the Biden administration implements the myriad research provisions of the CHIPS Act. (Lucas helped write it, then reluctantly voted against it after Republican leaders decided to enforce party discipline for political reasons.) Among the law’s most popular provisions — for members of both parties – include new programs aimed at distributing federal research spending to regions of the country that have traditionally received little and accelerating the commercialization of basic research discoveries, creating new industries and many well-paying jobs.
Issues important to the rural district of Lucas are also among his priorities, including the reauthorization of a major bill governing US agricultural research policy, weather programs and drone regulation.
As Lucas reaches the other side of the aisle, the retirement of current science committee chair and 15-term veteran Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) could mean dealing with a young generation of Democrats on the panel. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (OR), who was just reelected to her sixth 2-year term, is on track to be the top Democrat on the panel if they become the minority party. And Rep. Haley Stevens (D–MI), who just won a third term and now leads the panel’s research subcommittee, is seen as a rising star on the committee.
Oversight of climate and energy policy and research will take on a more contentious tone if Republicans take control of the committees. That would certainly be the case if they flipped the Senate and Sen. Ted Cruz (R–TX) skipped more senior members to become chairman of its Commerce and Science Committee, now headed by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D–WA ). Last summer, Cruz stormed out of the confirmation hearing of Arati Prabhakar, Biden’s new science adviser, after she disagreed with him that the impact of the he increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is an “uncertain science”.
On biomedical research, however, more courtesy is likely. A former Republican proprietor expects his former colleagues to continue to regard the NIH as the jewel in the government’s crown for research into conquering dreaded diseases. “Who wants to fight with their constituents when they come to Washington demanding that the government do more to find a cure for this or that disease?” says Charlie Dent, who retired from the Chamber in 2018 and sits on the board of Research! America, a biomedical research advocacy group.
At the same time, Dent says, the retirement of Sen. Roy Blunt (R–MO) means the NIH needs a new champion in the Senate. NIH watchers also fear that if Republicans take control of the Senate, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), one of the agency’s harshest critics, will become chairman of the health panel that oversees the agency.
Given the economic and fiscal difficulties facing the country, American researchers should not expect to get everything they want from the new Congress, says John Culberson, a Republican from Texas who chaired the spending committee of the House that oversees the NSF and NASA before losing his House seat as part of a Democratic wave in 2018. But Culberson, now a lobbyist for Federal Science Partners, believes Republican lawmakers who are likely to occupy key positions at the upcoming Congress “understand that increased support for basic science and space exploration is good for the economy and important for the nation. And they will fund as much science as the country — and taxpayers — can afford. »