March 4, 2016

Washington’s Week in Science

Policy News and Selected Funding Opportunities

Top Stories of the Week

  • Congress: House Leadership Struggles to find Consensus on a Budget Resolution
  • NSF: Geosciences Directorate Announces Major Facility Recompetitions
  • NIH: Bioengineering Research Partnerships Sought
  • Science Enterprise: National Academy Report Focuses on Reproducibility of Scientific Results

Congress

A major goal stated by both the House and Senate leadership has been to pass all twelve FY17 appropriations bills on time. This would avoid the need to vote on a trillion dollar omnibus spending bill during an election year, and would provide greater opportunities for the insertion of policy provisions in individual bills. The bipartisan budget agreement reached in October of last year, which raised the sequestration spending caps and put in place spending levels for FY16 and 17, made this prospect plausible. Despite this, initial steps in beginning the budget process encountered difficulty this week.

In order to consider appropriations bills, a budget resolution is required which formally establishes the top line spending level, called the 302 (a) allocation. Democrats have argued strongly the FY17 budget resolution must incorporate the spending level established in the bipartisan agreement of last year. However fiscal hawks, in reaction to reports that the budget deficit will begin to grow in future years, have sought spending reductions that would offset the roughly $30 billion spending increase that resulted from the bipartisan budget agreement.

After a week of turmoil, no clear consensus emerged. Many proposals were advanced to block any increases in mandatory spending, and to reduce such spending over the next five years. If accepted it is likely that these would also affect the President’s proposal for an additional $4.2 billion in mandatory spending for for NIH, NIST, and other science agencies.

Read More: Science Insider

NSF

The National Science Board has evolved a policy over the past several years whereby expiring awards for facility operations should generally be recompeted. The Geoscience Directorate is now preparing for several major recompetitions for some of its major facilities including the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), and its core seismic and geodetic services.

NSF announced in a January Dear Colleague Letter that the OOI, a $386 million project completed in FY14, would be recompeted.  OOI consists of arrays of deep-sea buoys, cabled seafloor regional nodes, and coastal observing networks.  Although OOI began operations only in mid-2015, the report, Sea Change: 2015-2025 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences, called attention to the need to scale back oceanographic facility infrastructure in order to preserve grant funding.  The report recommended an immediate 20% reduction in operating costs of OOI, then budgeted at $55 million per year.  As an alternative to this immediate reduction, the NSF committed to implement the reduction through the process of openly competing the OOI award and encouraging partnerships involving academic, commercial, governmental, and/or non-profit institutions. The NSF expects to issue a formal solicitation later this year.  The Dear Colleague Letter solicits comments and questions from eligible organizations up until March 18.

The NSF has also announced an open competition for the National Geophysical Observatory for Geoscience (NGEO), in effect, a consolidation and recompetition of the existing core seismic and geodetic services, now provided in EarthScope by UNAVCO, the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS).  Although the goal of the competition is to achieve a higher degree of integration, and financial and managerial efficiencies, the solicitation allows for more than a single award.  Letters of Intent are due by August 1, and full proposals by December 30.

NIH

The Bioengineering Research Partnerships (BRP) are part of the overall NIH plan to focus a wide variety of scientific disciplines on specific biomedical problems using engineering principles. The BRPs are specifically intended to address late-stage research problems with team-partnership structures, and specific timeframes and milestones. Other elements of the overall NIH strategy include Bioengineering Research Grants, and the Exploratory/Developmental Bioengineering Research Grants which addresses research at earlier stages.

NIH has issued a Funding Opportunity Announcement (PAR-16-116) soliciting proposals for the current round of BRPs. Applications will be accepted beginning April 18.

Science Enterprise

Congress has expressed concern over the lack of reproducibility in scientific research results, especially where biomedical studies influence policy and funding decisions by Federal agencies, and commercial decisions by the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry. Studies suggest that only about 6% of all medical research results are fully reproducible. One high profile study, specific to cancer research, showed that 47 out of 53 papers appearing in Nature were irreproducible. In addition to inadequate experimental design and statistical methods, other social factors related to publication pressure, tenure decisions, etc. can play a role. In some cases, intentional manipulation of the data has been found. In response to this growing concern, the NIH has instituted special mentoring and training programs to address problem, and has published a set of principles and guidelines for NIH funded researchers.

The National Academy of Sciences has released a workshop report, sponsored by the NSF, entitled Statistical Challenges in Assessing and Fostering the Reproducibility of Scientific Results. The workshop focused on defining the actual meaning of “reproducibility,” enhancing reproducibility to improve the scientific discovery process, raising the accepted threshold for statistical significance, and changing the basic research incentives to include reproducibility.

Read More: October 7, 2015 Hearings by Senate Labor, HHS Subcommittee (at 1:45)

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