May 13, 2016

Washington’s Week in Science

Policy News and Selected Funding Opportunities

Top Stories of the Week

  • Congress: Appropriations Process Moves Forward in Both Houses
  • White House: National Biome Initiative Announced
  • NIH: Funding Opportunities Announced for Alcohol Research Centers
  • NSF: Ideas for Future Investment Unveiled
  • Agriculture Research: Proposals Solicited for the Bioeconomy-Bioenergy-Bioproduct Program
  • Defense Research: DARPA Announces Initiative for Accelerated Computation
  • Research Enterprise: Senate Examines Future of Science and Technology Policy


Congress has only eight weeks to make progress on appropriations bills before a long summer recess reserved for the political conventions. The House and Senate are confronting very different process and procedural challenges to make good on the promise of enacting all individual spending bills. In the House, rules provide that if no budget resolution is in place, appropriations bills may be brought up after May 15. In the Senate, although unusual, it is possible to proceed with appropriations bills without a budget resolution or a House passed bill as a legislative vehicle.

After a contentious battle over a “poison pill” policy amendment, the Senate was able to pass HR 2028 the Energy and Water spending bill under regular order, the first since 2009. This also was the earliest Senate passage of an appropriations bill in 40 years. Although other policy provisions remain a threat, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) indicated additional bills would be brought up over the coming weeks. This will allow an omnibus spending bill at some point in the future.

Read More: The Hill, Brookings Brief, Bloomberg BNA

White House

The White House has announced the National Biome Initiative, a new public-private sector initiative to study study the ubiquitous microorganisms that profoundly affect human health and the environment.  Due to the complexity of the roles played by microbiomes across a vast number of disciplines the White House issued a call for action earlier this year.  The initiative identifies $121 million in FY16 and 17 in funding in DOE, NSF, NASA, NIH, and USDA.  In addition, more than 100 private companies, universities, and philanthropic organizations have announced their participation in the initiative.

Through focused interdisciplinary research, the initiative seeks to elucidate the roles that microbiomes play both in maintaining the health of human and environmental systems, and also causing chronic diseases, and adverse ecological impacts. A fuller understanding of these complex roles would lead to ways to keep microbiomes resilient and a vital part of the environment.


The NIH has released solicitations RFA-AA-17-001 and 002 for the establishment of specialized and comprehensive Alcohol Research Centers. Both are aimed at understanding the nature, causes, genetics, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of alcohol use disorders. In addition, Comprehensive Research Centers include a requirement for information dissemination, and community outreach and education related to the activities of the center.

The centers are expected to provide leadership in research, and research methodology around a specific research theme, foster research training, and actively develop interdisciplinary research collaborations. Specialized Center proposals may be up to $1.15 million per year for five years, and Comprehensive Center Proposals may be up to $1.25 million per year for five years. The solicitations do not require cost sharing.


In association with the May 5-6 meeting of the National Science Board discussion of strategic and long-range budget issues, NSF Director France Cordova unveiled a set of sweeping and ambitious goals that could set the stage for the transition to the next administration.

The Ideas for Future Investment, a presentation to the Board, outlined six major research areas in which the NSF could make a significant impact given sufficient funding (see webcast at 20 minutes). These include: a data science initiative and the development of national-scale research data infrastructure; an interdisciplinary initiative aimed at the human/machine interface; an initiative to understand the phenotype, that is, the traits and characteristics of an organism that result from evolution, genomics, and the environment; promoting a quantum revolution in computation, communications, and simulation; understanding the Arctic; and, new astrophysics enabled by multi-wavelength and gravitational wave facilities.

She also outlined initiatives to improve the NSF including: a new emphasis on undertaking grand challenges by converging traditional disciplinary approaches; and, improving the NSF approach towards funding research infrastructure.

Agriculture Research

The Sustainable Bioenergy and Bioproducts program is an initiative by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to promote the development of sustainable regional production systems for biofuels, biopower, and biobased products, and hence reduce dependence on foreign oil. NIFA has announced funding opportunity USDA-NIFA-AFRI-005460 as part of the FY16 Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Sustainable Bioenergy and Bioproducts Challenge Area.

The solicitation invites applications in two topical areas: Regional Bioenergy Coordinated Agricultural Projects that focus on the production and delivery of regionally-appropriate sustainable biomass feedstocks for bioenergy and bioproducts; and, Investing in America’s Scientific Corps: Preparing a New Generation of Students, Faculty, and Workforce for Emerging Challenges in Bioenergy, Bioproducts, and the Bioeconomy.  Letters of intent are due July 14.

Defense Research

Many inherently complex scientific and engineering problems involve coupled partial differential equations that describe conditions over a large range of scales. It is extremely challenging to solve these using traditional numerical solutions and computer clusters with multiple memory intensive central processing units. Tremendous computational resources are required and costs are becoming prohibitive.

To address this, DARPA has announced the Accelerated Computation for Efficient Scientific Simulation (ACCESS) initiative aimed at achieving the equivalent of petaflops performance at a benchtop prototype level.  The solicitation seeks to exploit hybrid analog/digital techniques and algorithms, and advances in optics, microelectromechanical systems and additive manufacturing to achieve scientific computing systems beyond Moore’s law.

Read More: DARPA Press Release

Research Enterprise

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation established a bipartisan Innovation and Competitiveness Working Group in 2015 to examine federal research and development policy priorities and issues that affect American competitiveness.  The end goal of the effort is to develop a Senate version of the America Competes Act.  Thus far most of this activity has been based on informal policy roundtables and a large number of public comments.

The Committee held a formal hearing this week on the Future of Science and Technology Policy and invited witnesses from academia, industry and the policy community.  The focus of the hearing was to identify ways to improve the roles of the federal government, private sector, and academia carrying out research, promoting STEM education and workforce development, and linking research to commercial uses.

All witnesses called for a renewed commitment to federal R&D investment in view of the fact that the US is falling significantly behind other nations, especially China. Other issues included growing university administrative burdens, declining proposal success rates, and large facility oversight.


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