Science & Nature

Research spending could be lone bright spot for U.S. science after election sets up divided government

Research spending could be lone bright spot for U.S. science after election sets up divided government thumbnail

The U.S. Congress returns this week after tumultuous midterm elections that left the Republicans still hoping to retake the House of Representatives and the Democrats doing better than expected by retaining the Senate. A divided Congress could mean a bumpy ride for the U.S. research community over the next 2 years.

The results of the 8 November elections will likely open the way to aggressive Republican-led investigations into how the National Institutes of Health (NIH) responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and whether a laboratory leak in China led to the catastrophe, as well as closer scrutiny of President Joe Biden’s efforts to combat climate change and keep pace with China’s push to become a technological superpower. Republican control of the House also increases the likelihood of political stalemate, precluding major new policy initiatives—such as deep cuts to federal spending or new climate regulations—by either party.

But science advocates are hopeful the partisan battles and gridlock won’t undermine the traditional bipartisan support for research funding. If they are right, the new Congress, which will begin its 2-year term in January 2023, might come together to provide stable budgets—and perhaps even funding increases—for federal research agencies.

This week’s elections didn’t generate a “red wave” that would have given Republicans the sheer numbers to roll back parts of Biden’s agenda. Instead, they are poised to regain the House by perhaps only a half-dozen seats, although there are more than a dozen races yet to be determined. At the same time, retaining a seat held by Catherine Cortez Masto (D–NV) gives Democrats the 50 seats needed to retain control of the Senate. And a victory in a runoff election next month in Georgia would give Democrats a 51st seat, providing them the leeway needed to move presidential nominations and do more to advance Biden’s agenda.

A Republican-led House won’t be enough to advance that party’s agenda. But it will allow Republicans to pass “messaging” bills: legislation that has no chance of becoming law but that showcases their political philosopnuhy in advance of the 2024 presidential election. In the science arena, for example, some Republican lawmakers have talked about banning federal funding for certain kinds of research that could create more dangerous pathogens or cutting spending on environmental and climate research.

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House Republicans have also promised to grill Anthony Fauci, the soon-to-retire head of NIH’s infectious disease institute, about his role in the country’s COVID-19 response, and probe whether U.S.-funded work at a research institute in Wuhan, China, played a role in sparking the pandemic. They also want to use hearings to attack the Biden administration’s efforts to move away from fossil fuels. It will likely be difficult, however, for Republicans to translate such investigations into new policy.

Whichever party ends up in control in the House, the majorities will continue to be narrow. Science advocates hope that will help promote at least some bipartisan cooperation on research spending.

The first signs could come next week, when the current Congress tries to complete work on one massive piece of legislation that would set spending levels for all federal agencies in fiscal year 2023, which began on 1 October. (Federal agencies are now under a spending freeze that expires on 16 December, and it has been years since Congress passed individual spending bills for clusters of agencies.)

Any agreement could have lasting effects: The 2023 numbers could become the baseline for spending in each of the next two fiscal years if legislators can’t agree on funding levels and simply freeze budgets in place. That number could end up being “the high-water mark for science,” one higher education lobbyist says.

But advocates would like to see the new Congress do even more for science. They are pushing for the double-digit annual funding boosts for several research agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), called for in a recently passed law, the CHIPS and Science Act. They’d also like to see NIH’s budget keep pace with inflation—or more. The outcome will be shaped by who ends up leading the appropriations panels in the Senate and House, a lineup that won’t be set until later this year, as well as decisions by party leaders on overall spending levels.

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Science advocates are generally pleased with the likely next chair of the House science committee if Republicans take the chamber, Representative Frank Lucas (OK). Currently the panel’s top Republican, Lucas has a track record of working closely with Democrats to craft broadly bipartisan bills.

Under his leadership, the science committee is expected to look closely at how the Biden administration is implementing the myriad research provisions in the CHIPS act. (Lucas helped write it, then reluctantly voted against it after Republican leaders decided to enforce party discipline for political reasons.) Among the law’s most popular provisions—for members of both parties—are new programs to spread federal research spending to regions of the country traditionally receiving little of it and to accelerate the commercialization of basic research discoveries, creating new industries and lots of well-paying jobs.

Issues important to Lucas’s rural district are also high on his agenda, including reauthorization of a major bill governing U.S. agricultural research policy, weather programs, and the regulation of drones.

As Lucas reaches across the aisle, the retirement of the science committee’s current chair and 15-term veteran, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), could mean dealing with a younger generation of Democrats on the panel. Representative Suzanne Bonamici (OR), just re-elected to her sixth 2-year term, is in line to be the panel’s top Democrat if they become the minority party. And Representative Haley Stevens (D–MI), who just won a third term and who now leads the panel’s research subcommittee, is seen as a rising star on the committee.

On biomedical research, continued comity is likely. A former Republican appropriator expects his former colleagues to continue to view NIH as the government’s crown jewel for research on conquering dread diseases. “Who wants to fight with their constituents when they come to Washington to demand the government do more to find a cure for this or that disease?” says Charlie Dent, who retired from the House in 2018 and serves on the board of Research!America, an advocacy group for biomedical research. At the same time, Dent says, the retirement of Senator Roy Blunt (R–MO) means NIH needs a new champion in the Senate.

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Given the economic and fiscal struggles facing the nation, U.S. researchers shouldn’t expect to get everything they want from the new Congress, says John Culberson, a Texas Republican who chaired the House spending panel that oversees NSF and NASA before losing his House seat as part of a Democratic wave in 2018. But Culberson, now a lobbyist for Federal Science Partners, believes Republican lawmakers who are likely to occupy key positions in the next Congress “understand that increased support for basic science and space exploration are good for the economy and important to the nation. And they will fund as much science as the country—and taxpayers—can afford.”

Update, 14 November, 10:45 a.m.: This story has been updated to reflect that the Democrats are projected to hold the Senate.

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