Washington Update

Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By: Benjamin Krinsky
Thursday, December 19, 2019

Congress and White House Finish FY 2020 Budget; Science Legislation Advances as Holiday Season Approaches

This week, Congress finalized the fiscal year (FY) 2020 budget. The rapid conclusion to the budget impasse began last week when House and Senate appropriators reached an agreement on the allocations for the twelve appropriations subcommittees. These spending levels were codified in the two so-called “minibus” appropriations measures. One measure passed the House on Tuesday by a vote of 280-138, while the other passed 297-120. The Senate was set to approve both measures on December 19 and the President is expected to sign both into law before the continuing resolution expires on December 20.

Taken together, the spending bills contain the following budgets (and increases above FY 2019) for science funding agencies:

  • National Institutes of Health (NIH): $41.7 billion (+$2.6 billion)
  • National Science Foundation (NSF): $8.28 billion (+$203 million)
  • Department of Energy Office of Science: $7 billion (+$415 million)
  • USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative: $425 million (+$10 million)
  • Veterans Affairs Medical Research Program: $800 million (+$21 million)

In the report language accompanying the two minibus packages, the NIH section was amended regarding the use of non-human primates in the agency’s intramural research program:

The agreement recognizes the use of nonhuman primate research for the advancement of biomedical research. It also understands that NIH continues to seek scientific alternatives to reduce and replace nonhuman primate use in biomedical research. NIH reviews every project that uses nonhuman primates in research to ensure both the welfare of the animal and that there are no scientific alternatives that could replace an animal model. The agreement requests a report to the Committees no later than one year after enactment of this Act that includes a discussion of nonhuman primate use and efforts to reduce such research use specifically, an assessment of research alternatives, including benefits and limitations of such alternatives, cost estimates, and areas of further need for innovative alternatives. In the fiscal year 2021 Congressional Justification, the agreement requests NIH include a discussion of research alternatives in use and those in development (Domestic Minibus Explanatory Statement Division A, p. 77-78).

The same minibus that funds NIH also includes the Graduate Student Savings Act, a FASEB-endorsed bill that would allow graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to contribute fellowship and stipend income to Individual Retirement Accounts.

Meanwhile, other science-related legislation is making its way through Congress. On December 17, Congress finalized S.1790, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a sweeping defense-policy bill that authorizes a wide range of military and other programs. The Securing American Science and Technology Act (SASTA), a bill endorsed by FASEB, was included as a provision of the NDAA. As stated in the legislation, this provision would create a new interagency working group to “coordinate activities to protect federally funded research from foreign interference. . .while accounting for the importance of the open exchange of ideas and international talent required for scientific progress and American leadership in science and technology.”

In a similar vein, on December 11 the JASON group released its report “Fundamental Research Security,”  commissioned by NSF in response to recent reports of malign foreign actions that could violate the integrity of U.S. research. Like the SASTA bill and FASEB’s statement on global collaboration, the report affirms the important role that foreign scholars and students play in the U.S. research enterprise and cautions against new restrictions on fundamental research. The report encourages NSF to lead efforts across federal research agencies to craft research integrity policies.

Regarding health policy, on December 12 the House passed HR 3, the Elijah Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act, a package of reforms aimed at reducing the cost of prescription drugs. The measure included text similar to HR 4667, the Biomedical Innovation Expansion Act of 2019. The language in HR 3 would increase funding for the NIH Innovation Projects specified in the 21st Century Cures Act (the cancer “moonshot,” the BRAIN Initiative, the Precision Medicine Initiative, and regenerative medicine), extend funding through FY 2030, and create two new innovation projects: research to combat antimicrobial resistant pathogens and rare disease research.

Leaders of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions and the House Energy and Commerce Committee announced December 8 that they had reached an agreement on a bill to end surprise medical billing, among other reforms. Language that pushes back on the anti-vaccine movement is included, as the bill “authorizes a national campaign to increase awareness and knowledge of the safety and effectiveness of vaccines for the prevention and control of diseases, to combat misinformation, and to disseminate scientific and evidence-based vaccine-related information.” Similar language was included in the Labor, Health and Human Services minibus report language and echoes FASEB’s position on the safety and efficacy of vaccines.