Are the policy planets in line again?

Every so often, the planets in the U.S. policy universe line up to allow big steps forward in U.S. science policy. These steps forward can involve the creation of new programs or the infusion of significant amounts of federal funding for research. As one watches the skies over Washington, DC, now, it appears the heavenly policy bodies might be on their way to alignment once again.

This time they are lining up around the issue of American research and development and innovation and the desire by policy makers to keep the United States competitive with the world. It’s not exactly clear what is driving the alignment. Of course we are obviously living in a scientifically intense time: The world has been struggling under a pandemic, Americans know more about the clinical trial process than ever before, there is evidence of international scientific espionage, and the United States just elected a President who says his administration will make policy decisions based on science. 

Regardless of the reasons, the activity is obvious and substantial. There is legislation in both the House of Representatives and the Senate that would make significant additions to the National Science Foundation (NSF), primarily by adding a new directorate that would focus on maintaining American leadership in new and cutting-edge technologies. 

A major component of the initial drafts of the Senate bill is the infusion of as much as $100 billion in funding over a five-year period for the new directorate within the NSF, which currently has an annual budget of about $8.5 billion. Along with the huge amounts of money, the Senate envisions the new directorate as significantly walled off from the other portions of the NSF and with the unusual authority to work directly with other federal agencies.

The bill in the House has the same general assignments for the new directorate but significantly reduces the silo walls, in part by funding the new directorate with the same mechanism that funds all the other NSF directorates. Under the House bill, the NSF budget would grow by about $10 billion over the first five years.

The two bills are starting to make their way through the legislative process with changes being made along the way. While change is always expected as part of legislating, the Senate bill is experiencing supernova-like changes. The bill started out at around 300 pages but at one point had grown to over 1,400 pages as it became filled with measures to address every conceivable science-related issue. It is possible the Senate bill will, like a supernova, simply explode under its own weight, leaving the House bill as the only option for changes to the NSF. If it survives, the Senate bill could be on its way to make bigger changes to the U.S. science universe than even its authors intended.

Major changes are also in the future for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A proposal being discussed would create an NIH version of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA has a long history of making investments in defense-related research that has a potential to make significant advances in technologies for national security. A health research version, called ARPA-H, was included in the early “skinny” version of President Biden’s FY22 budget request. The complete budget proposal for the NIH released at the end of May includes an additional $6.5 billion for the creation of ARPA-H within the NIH.

Over time, the DARPA model has become shorthand for an agency that, with large enough amounts of money and detailed project management, can deliver major advances in technology. The Obama administration created ARPA-E for the development of new energy technologies. Now, there is interest in creating an ARPA-H for healthcare-related research.

As of now, there are many remaining questions that will, hopefully, be answered as part of the budget process.

  • Is the proposed ARPA-H intended to compete with the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry?
  • Is it intended to aid in the development of platforms and other devices too expensive for industry to invest in but not normally included in federally funded research?
  • Why does the new agency have to exist within the NIH?
  • What purpose would the ARPA-H serve not currently handled by the NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS)?

The outcome of these proposals to redesign NSF and NIH is uncertain but they are probably just the first of many potential changes to America’s research portfolio.

A look back into recent history pinpoints some of the other times when planets lined up to bring major change. The most notable was the five years between 1997 and 2003 in which the NIH saw its budget double. In 2009, huge infusions of funds for both NIH and NSF were included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a bill intended to help pull the American economy out of the ditch after a serious recession.

The energy behind the doubling of the NIH budget came from advocacy efforts of the NIH community. Members of the research community, patients groups, and university groups all worked hard to make a major fiscal change to the NIH. Members of Congress who were strong supporters of the NIH also played important roles. It has always been rumored, however, that the major impetus behind the doubling was the need for a Democratic President and a Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives to find something they could agree on.

It is also understood on Capitol Hill that the $10 billion for the NIH included in ARRA was the price one senator exacted in order for the White House to get his vote for the bill.

Some major achievements also were the result of good old fashioned bipartisanship. These collaborations resulted in significant updates to major sections of federal science agencies, including the NSF, the Department of Energy, and the National Institute of Science and Technology in both 2007 and 2010. A similar bipartisan effort led to the passage to the 21st Century Cures Act in 2016, which helped improve drug development, modernize clinical trials, and speed the review of new and novel medical products.

The reasons that bring the policy planets into line are varied and not as important as the changes that get made. What is important is that science policy advocates make sure the results are as productive as possible for science and for the nation.

About the Author:

Kevin M. Wilson serves as Director of Public Policy and Media Relations for The American Society for Cell Biology. He's worked as the Legislative Director for U.S. Congressman Robert Weygand (D-RI) and as a Legislative Assistant for U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI). He has a BA in Politics and American Government from the Catholic University of America. Email: