Congress Kicks Budget Can Down The Road, But Funds Zika Work

As is all too common, the Congress managed to avoid its responsibility to pass a budget prior to the start of the new fiscal year (which is October 1).  Earlier this week, after much wrangling, the House and Senate agreed on a continuing resolution to fund the government until December 9.

What a continuing resolution means is that unless otherwise provided for in the resolution, the government will be funded at the same levels as the previous fiscal year.  Any programs that would get different funding levels in the new year (or would were set to start or finish in the new year) are in bureaucratic limbo.  While this is a new normal in this century, these resolutions complicate government operation because they make it much harder for agencies to plan for and do their work.  There’s simply no confidence that there will be the money for intended programs.

The continuing resolution includes $1.1 billion for dealing with the Zika virus.  It’s slightly more than half what the Obama Administration requested back in February.  During the seven months in which there was no new funding, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control Prevention had to do their work by ‘borrowing’ from funding designated for fighting other diseases.  There is no provision in the continuing resolution to restore those funds.

One stumbling block (out of several) on the way to this continuing resolution involved funding for addressing the water problems in Flint, Michigan.  While not included in this legislation, a deal is in place to address water infrastructure in separate legislation.  We’ll see if it actually ahppens.


Zika Is Still An Underfunded Problem

Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance for travel to the Wynwood in Miami affected by mosquito-borne Zika, a total of 43 such cases have been reported in South Florida (compared to more than 3300 travel-related cases of Zika reported across the United States since January 2015) as of this writing.  There have been no other reported mosquito-borne cases in the 50 U.S. states, but there are over 19,000 mosquito-borne cases in U.S. territories (primarily Puerto Rico).

The latest news on the mosquito-borne virus spread in Florida is mixed.  While the Wynwood neighborhood is no longer considered an area of active virus transmission (it was active from roughly June 15-September 18), Miami Beach is still active (and has been since about July 14).  To be extra cautious, CDC is encouraging those who are pregnant or are partners of pregnant women to avoid unnecessary travel to Miami-Dade County.  Those who may have been exposed to the virus should avoid sex for a minimum of 8 weeks to minimize the chances of either transmitting the disease or increasing the chances of birth defects for any pregnancy following exposure.

Meanwhile, Congress has done little more than posture over passing a funding package for combating the virus.  With the fiscal year officially closing on Friday, any continuing resolution (CR) that is passed (the most likely way the government will stay funded on October 1) would need Zika funding added in order for it to be effective.  I am not optimistic.  The Department of Health and Human Services has done what it can to move money around within existing appropriations, but a CR without Zika language would not provide much relief, as the Department can likely do little more than continuing to cannibalize research on other diseases and viruses.  Regrettably, it seems that with most affected Americans also lacking direct representation in Congress, that Zika will remain something that can be ignored and delayed due to lack of concentrated legislative effort.

You Know You Want To Tell NSF About Its Strategic Plan

Every few years most agencies revise the agency’s strategic plan.  The National Science Foundation (NSF) is preparing for the next revision of its strategic plan, which will take place in the 2017-2018 timeframe.  The feedback mechanism is relatively informal, and comments are requested by September 27.

The strategic plan is a high-level document, and the next one will cover 2018-2022.  The plan includes Strategic Goals (along with the Objectives for achieving each goal), Core Values and overall Vision for the agency.  There are other items in the plan, but it is for these four elements that the NSF seeks feedback.

If you’re looking for a place to start, I’d recommend the NSF Vision:

A Nation that creates and exploits new concepts in science and engineering and provides
global leadership in research and education.
I’d argue that’s a vision for the nation rather than for the agency (which isn’t the only science agency), but you may have different concerns about the Vision and the other elements of the Plan intended to make such a vision a reality.  Perhaps you have questions that you don’t think the Plan addresses (What value do you bring to the public?  How do your core values translate to the public?).  Bring those items to the Foundation’s attention.

This FYI post from the American Institute of Physics has more details on how and when the NSF (with the National Science Board) will develop the new plan.  There will be additional opportunities for agency staff, Congress, and traditional stakeholders to provide input.  However, this appears to be the one time that the public has an opportunity to weigh in.  Make it count.

Canadian Science Review Seeking Additional Public Input

The Fundamental Science Review taking place in Canada continues apace.  Led by Science Minister Kirsty Duncan with the assistance of an advisory panel, the Review is required as part of the current Canadian budget document.

After taking initial public comments and meeting with stakeholder, last week the Review started a second phase of public comment.  Those interested in commenting should visit the website, pick the link for the stakeholder group they belong to, and answer the questions and/or provide feedback as you like.  There are specific questions for Researchers; Institutions and Administrators; and Students, Trainees, and Postdocs.  Other interested parties should also feel free to provide feedback, but there are no specific questions for you.

The Review is asking for submissions up to September 30.  The plan is to conclude the Review by the end of the year, so the deadline seems quite reasonable.

Update Corner: STEM Fastrack; Collections Funding Restored; Collections Underused

Two updates on previously posted stories.

Back in April, the comic strip On the Fastrack had a storyline involving the character Fistula Breech (usually called Fi in the strip) giving a speech to girls about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers.  Starting on June 20th (but only revealing the STEM connection on June 21), that story was revisited.  This time the story line focuses more on how much Fi is *not* interested in making the presentation and how that eventually affects the speech.  I shan’t spoil anything (for all I know, the story will continue tomorrow), but my favorite of this stretch so far is the June 24th strip.

Also in April, I noted that an infrastructure program sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) would have its funding suspended pending a program review.  It’s the program from the Division of Biological Infrastructure that supports biological specimen collections.  Thankfully the NSF decided to continue funding (on an alternate year basis) while the review continues.  Community feedback likely influenced the change of heart, as many researchers and scientific societies described the value of this program to research in their comments to the agency.

It’s a move consistent with this call from the Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to increase funding for such collections.  Kirk Johnson described the value of historical collections to help track and fight diseases for   (H/T The FrogHeart Daily) He went into further detail in an op-ed for The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with colleagues from the museum, the Department of Health and Human Services and Columbia University.  In that piece the authors make the case not just for utilizing existing collections to help with diseases like the Zika virus and the emergence of hanta virus in the 1990s, but to make collections of relevant specimens during disease outbreaks in order to help track the disease and be better prepared for the possibilities of the disease coming back.

Canadian Government Engaged In Fundamental Science Review

Part of the Canadian government’s 2016 budget stipulated a review of science funding government-wideThis review will be led by Science Minster Kirsty Duncan, and was launched earlier this week.  Minister Duncan expects the review to be completed by the end of 2016.

The review will be support by an independent panel of experience researchers.  Former president of the University of Toronto David Naylor will chair the panel.  The panelists are drawn from various public and private entities across Canada (Dr. Birgeneau preceded Naylor at the University of Toronto).  The men and women working with Naylor on the panel are:

  • Dr. Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor, University of California, Berkeley
  • Dr. Martha Crago, Vice-President, Research, Dalhousie University
  • Mike Lazaridis, co-founder, Quantum Valley Investments
  • Dr. Claudia Malacrida, Associate Vice-President, Research, University of Lethbridge
  • Dr. Art McDonald, former director of the Sudbury Neutrino Laboratory, Nobel Laureate
  • Dr. Martha Piper, interim president, University of British Columbia
  • Dr. Rémi Quirion, Chief Scientist, Quebec
  • Dr. Anne Wilson, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Successful Societies Fellow and professor of psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University

The panel will assess the current state of Canadian research institutions as well as examining the Canadian research ecosystem as a whole.  It will consult with members of the Canadian research community and solicit input from the public.  The panel will also review international best practices, particularly in areas that they identify as weaknesses in the Canadian system.


The panel’s mandate focuses on support for fundamental research, research facilities, and platform technologies.  This will include the three granting councils as well as other research organisations such as the Canadian Foundation for Innvoation. But it does not preclude the panel from considering and providing advice and recommendations on research matters outside of the mandate.  The plan is to make the panel’s work and recommendations readily accessible to the public, either online or through any report or reports the panel produces.  The panel’s recommendations to Minister Duncan are non-binding.  However, with researchers on the panel   that are experienced in providing such advice to governments (such as Dr. Naylor), I think the panel’s recommendation stand a fair chance of being adopted by the government.

As Ivan Semeniuk notes at The Globe and Mail, the recent Nurse Review in the U.K., which led to the notable changes underway in the organization of that country’s research councils, seems comparable to this effort.  But I think it worth noting the differences in the research systems of the two countries, and the different political pressures in play.  It is not at all obvious to this writer that the Canadian review would necessarily lead to similar recommendations for a streamlining and reorganization of the Canadian research councils.  Yes, Dr. Naylor recommended a streamlining of health care organisations in a review he conducted during the previous government.  But the focus in health care is more application focused than is usually expected of fundamental research.

There is a simple mechanism online to receive comments (attachments are accepted as well), and as the panel begins its work, I would expect to see announcements of future meetings/consultations with stakeholders and the public.  To keep informed, visit the website, and sign up for email updates.

NSF Nudging Researchers To Explore Science and Innovation Data

Recently the National Science Foundation released a Dear Colleague letter to researchers that may engage with the Science of Science and Innovation Policy (SCISIP) program in the Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences.  These letters often try to draw interest in particular kinds of research within a program or directorate.  In this case the SCISIP program staff are looking to get more researchers submitting proposals connected with the use and/or generation of data on science and/or innovation policy.

Specifically, the letter is soliciting interest in EAGER grants for exploratory research.  Projects would be using administrative data on science and engineering research grants from federal agencies.  This could include, but not be limited to, STAR METRICS, Federal RePORTer and other institutional data from federal agencies, other research institutions, and other entities in the research enterprise that would track scientific and technological research.

While there are standing submission deadlines for the SCISIP program, this Dear Colleague for EAGER grants is seeking one-page summaries of research ideas by April 29.  There is also a joint NIH-NSF workshop scheduled for April 7 and 8 that will cover current best practices in research models, tools and data (among other issues in the study of science and innovation policy).