The end of the 114th Congress: Sweeping innovation and medical research legislation signed into law, government shutdown avoided

The 114th Congress finished in December with the passage of important legislation, including a FY17 Continuing Resolution (CR), which will fund the government through April 28, 2017, avoiding a government shutdown. Although the CR freezes most discretionary spending through April 28, the legislation does include additional funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to begin implementing the 21st Century Cures Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama on December 13, 2016.

The 21st Century Cures Act will increase funding for medical research, reform federal policy on mental health care, and ease the development and approval process of experimental treatments. The bill includes $4.8 billion in new funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), $1.8 billion of which is allocated for the “cancer moonshot” initiative, and another $1.6 billion is specifically for brain research, including Alzheimer’s. The legislation also includes $500 million in additional funding for the Food and Drug Administration and $1billion in grants to help states deal with opioid abuse.

“Research – whether supported by NIH or the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the nation’s other science agencies – is most efficient and productive when funding is consistent and predictable. We urge the new Congress to finalize the FY17 process as quickly as possible and to support the increased investments in research and higher education that were already included in the appropriations process before it came to a halt,” said Mary Sue Coleman, President of the Association of American Universities.

On December 16, 2016, Congress passed the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (AICA, S.3084). The bill, introduced by Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), sets policy for the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, and other cross-agency research programs.

In an Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) statement, President Peter McPherson said, “the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act will help ensure good science while streamlining regulations that too often clog up the scientific process with redundant and unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles.  Additionally, the measure helps foster the commercialization of the discoveries made in university labs so they can more easily be turned into products that the public can use and enjoy.”

The bipartisan agreement affirms NSF’s mission and current approach while directing updates in some areas to increase transparency and accountability.  The legislation also reaffirms support for the importance of the peer review process and encourages NSF to continue its new initiatives that increase transparency in the awarding of individual grants.  Additionally, the bill will increase oversight of NSF facilities management, require congressional notification related to rotator salaries, direct NSF to update its conflicts of interest policy, and encourage a new National Academies report on research reproducibility and replication, all with the aim to increase accountability.  None of these provisions contain controversial language or the directives included in previous COMPETES (America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science) drafts.

The bill will also direct NSF to create a new strategy on mid-scale research, and will reaffirm support for several of NSF current research themes and education activities.  These include support for programs related to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, broadening participation, undergraduate education, computer science for all, informal STEM education, sustainable chemistry, optics and photonics, and the Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program.

The bill was presented to President Obama on December 28, and signed into law soon after.

With the inauguration of the 45th president, Donald Trump, on January 20th, the 115th Congress will be tasked in the coming months with finishing the FY2017 appropriations process. Action has already begun with passage of a budget resolution.