DC Digest – May 5, 2014

In Today’s Issue

  • This Week in Washington
  • Senate Appropriations Committee Hearing Addresses Innovation Deficit
  • Duke Asks Appropriators to Support Research and Education at NASA
  • Senate Judiciary Postpones Markup of Patent Legislation
  • NSB Report Offers Ways to Reduce Research Compliance Burden
  • Associations Urge Reauthorization of Terrorism Risk Insurance Act
  • White House Releases Report on Protecting College Students from Sexual Assault
  • House Passes DATA Act
  • House Ed & Workforce Committee to Hold Hearing on Unionizing Student Athletes

Appropriations: The House Appropriations Committee will debate the Commerce-Justice-Science bill on Wednesday during a Committee hearing where they are also expected to approve the spending levels for the remaining spending bills. So far, the committee has only agreed upon spending levels for Military Construction-VA, Legislative Branch and CJS bills. The Committee is expected to focus on Transportation-HUD bill next.

Defense: The House Armed Services Committee will hold its mark-up of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, also on Wednesday. Points of the bill expected to elicit debate are proposals to reduce military benefits, housing allowances and force readiness.

HHS Confirmation: Sylvia Burwell, nominee for Health and Human Services Secretary, goes before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee on Thursday. While Republicans have been generally non-committal regarding Burwell’s nomination so far, Republicans will have an opportunity to ask pointed questions regarding the implementation of Obamacare.

Floor Action: House Leadership is set to bring up a bill making the research and experimentation tax credit permanent, while the Senate is planning a vote on a bigger package temporarily extending nearly all of the expired breaks at some point in the next two weeks. The Senate will also spend time debating energy efficiency legislation which may or may not include Keystone XL. Meanwhile the House will consider the proposal to create a Joint Select Committee to invest the attack on the Benghazi consulate.

Read More:
Week Ahead: Burwell to face first nomination hearing (TheHill.com)
Keystone pipeline issue looms as Senate takes up energy bill (Washington Post)

The Senate Appropriations Committee on April 29 held a hearing with leaders of five federal research agencies and offices to discuss the topic, “Driving Innovation through Federal Investments.”

Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said in her opening remarks that the session was the first-ever crosscutting look at innovation and asked, “As one of the greatest countries in the world, are we so preoccupied with making budget cuts that we’re heading towards an innovation deficit as well?”

The Committee heard from the President’s Science Advisor, as well as the heads of the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and DARPA. 

The leaders agreed on the harmful consequences of cuts in federal research spending, particularly the across-the-board funding cuts made through sequestration.  They discussed their frustration at the low percentage of high-quality research proposals their agencies are able to fund, which has led to a loss of excellent science and discouraged young scientists and engineers from research careers.  They also noted that while the U.S. is cutting its investments, international competitors, particularly China, are ramping up their R&D spending.

The Senate panel also solicited views from the research community and the public and received written statements from more than 100 organizations.

Read More:
Full Committee Hearing: Driving Innovation through Federal Investments – Links to testimony and outside statements (appropriations.senate.gov)


A group of 34 universities, including Duke, has written to House and Senate appropriations committee leaders urging them to support university-based research and education at NASA.  The letter describes the importance of NASA’s Science, Aeronautics, and Space Technology directorates, and the Space Grant program to innovation and the next generation of space scientists, engineers, and managers.

Read More:
Letter to Support Research and Education at NASA (pdf)

The Senate Judiciary Committee continues to work on patent legislation, searching for compromise language that could generate sufficiently broad support to pass the bill.  Absent such a consensus, Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) postponed markup of the bill (S. 1720), which had been scheduled for May 1.

Last week, a broad coalition of organizations concerned about several provisions being considered for inclusion in the bill reissued an April 2 letter to Chairman Leahy and Ranking Member Charles Grassley (R-IA).  The letter, which was endorsed by more than 100 universities including Duke, expressed strong concern about the lack of balance in those provisions between curbing abusive patent practices and protecting legitimate patent enforcement.  Without such balance in key provisions, the letter said, the organizations would have to oppose the legislation.

The Supreme Court on April 29 issued a potentially far-reaching decision on fee shifting in Octane Fitness v. Icon Health and Fitness.  In its ruling, the Court substantially lowered the threshold for courts to call for fee shifting, or “loser pays,” under which the non-prevailing party pays the prevailing party’s fees in a given patent case.  The impact of the lowered threshold would make fee shifting more likely, thus obviating the need to include fee shifting—one of the greatest concerns for universities—in the pending patent legislation.

Read More:
Reissued Letter (pdf)

The National Science Board (NSB), the policymaking body for NSF, on May 1 issued a report that calls on the federal government to reduce the growing regulatory burden on faculty and others who conduct federally funded research.  The report, “Reducing Investigators’ Administrative Workload for Federally Funded Research,” argues that excessive federal regulations on research are taking scientists away from the bench unnecessarily and diverting taxpayer dollars from research to superfluous grant administration.

The report was based on responses from thousands of federally funded scientists and engineers to an NSB request for examples of conflicting, duplicative, or ineffective regulations governing the conduct of research.  The report recommends creation of a permanent high-level, interagency, inter-sector federal committee that, with stakeholder engagement, would work to streamline and harmonize regulations and help standardize the implementation of new requirements affecting investigators and institutions.

Regarding specific research regulations, the panel calls for limiting proposal requirements to those essential to evaluate merit; keeping reporting focused on outcomes; and automating payroll certification for effort reporting.  The NSB further recommends an evaluation of animal research, conflict of interest, and safety and security requirements.  It also encourages universities to review their own institutional review board and animal care and use processes to speed approval of research project protocols.

Read More:
Excessive Regulations Turning Scientists into Bureaucrats (nsf.gov)

–Related: Research University Associations Express Support for Recommendations in NSB Report
AAU, APLU, and the Council on Governmental Relations issued a statement on May 1 expressing support for the recommendations included in the NSB report on administrative burden.  The statement said, in part:

“Too often federal requirements are ill-conceived, ineffective, and/or duplicative.  When that is the case, the time researchers must devote to compliance with such requirements unnecessarily reduces the time they can devote to discovery and innovation…The research university community welcomes the policy recommendations in the NSB report. They represent sound and reasonable steps the government and universities can take to reduce regulatory costs and burdens, while still ensuring necessary accountability and government oversight.”

Read More:
Statement on NSB report on administrative burden (aau.edu)

The White House on April 29 released a report from its Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, which, among other provisions, recommends that colleges and universities amend their policies on how to respond to victims of sexual assault and adopt new campus disciplinary processes.

The report, Not Alone, was accompanied by detailed policy guidance issued by the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights that clarifies colleges’ obligations to address sexual assaults under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.  Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs and activities.  The report and guidance make clear that the federal government will become more visible and vigilant in enforcing Title IX in this area.

The report provides institutions with a toolkit to conduct a “climate survey” to gauge the prevalence of sexual assault on campus.  The task force encourages institutions to voluntarily conduct such surveys next year.   At the end of the trial period, the White House will explore legislative and administrative options for making the survey mandatory in 2016.

The White House also launched a new website, NotAlone.gov, to provide resources to survivors of sexual assault and information about Title IX investigations.

Read More:
“Not Alone” – report and other materials from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault (whitehouse.gov)

The House of Representatives on April 28 gave final congressional approval to the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act), sending the bill to the President for signature.

AAU issued a statement commending Congress for its bipartisan approval of the bill, which not only will provide greater financial transparency in federal grants and contracts spending but also will take important steps toward streamlining the reporting process.  The goal is to eliminate duplicative financial reporting requirements and reduce compliance costs.

Read More:
AAU Statement on Congressional Passage of DATA Act (pdf)

Under the leadership of the American Council on Education (ACE), a group of 10 higher education associations has urged leaders of the Senate Banking and House Financial Services committees to reauthorize the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA), which is set to expire this year.

In their April 24 letter, the associations noted that more than a decade after the tragic events of September 11, American colleges and universities remain potential “soft targets” for terrorism.  Through TRIA, they have been able to obtain adequate, reasonably priced insurance covering such potential events.  Without TRIA, many colleges and universities would face the difficult choice of either forgoing terrorism insurance or purchasing more limited coverage at higher cost.

Read More:
Letter reauthorizing the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (acenet.edu)

The House Education and the Workforce Committee, chaired by Rep. John Kline (R-MN), will hold a hearing to examine a recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that classifies certain student athletes as “employees” for the purposes of collective bargaining. 

“The NLRB’s decision represents a radical departure from longstanding federal labor policies,” said Chairman Kline. “Classifying student athletes as employees threatens to fundamentally alter college sports, as well as reduce education access and opportunity. The committee has a responsibility to thoroughly examine how the NLRB’s decision will affect students and their ability to receive a quality education.”

Read More:
Kline to Convene Hearing on Union Efforts to Organize Student Athletes (edworkforce.house.gov)