Appropriations Bills Advance in the House, Stalemate in the Senate

July 30, 2020

The House of Representatives is expected to vote on Friday, July 31 on a second ‘minibus’ — multiple spending bills together — for fiscal year (FY) 2021. This second minibus (HR 7617) contains six spending bills for large research funders like the National Institutes of Health (NIH); the National Science Foundation (NSF); and the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). See previous FABBS budget article for details. Democratic leaders decided to separate the Homeland Security spending bill that would have triggered a floor fight over immigration policy and border wall funding.

The House voted to approve the first budget minibus (HR 7608) for FY 21 on July 24. This minibus included four bills funding the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of State, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For the most part, these agencies received minimal increase, roughly at the rate of inflation. Prior to the floor vote, the White House had issued a statement threatening to veto the package due to its funding for the World Health Organization, emergency spending on the pandemic, and language restricting the EPA’s ability to implement the Science Transparency Rule, among other things.

The Senate has been focused of COVID recovery, seemingly putting any discussion of FY 21 appropriations on an indefinite hold. Given the upcoming August recess and pressures to be present in their home districts in advance of the November election, Senate appropriators could end the year without marking up any of its annual bills. Washington has not seen that level of inaction since at least 1985, which is understood to be as far back as the chamber’s online records go.

For readers interested in additional details, Appropriations bills are accompanied by reports that bring attention to Congressional priorities and clarify the sense of Congress. Reports this year included language on a range of topics relevant to the FABBS community including the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) strategic plan, the importance of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, the NSF investment in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, and open access policies. 

House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee Report:

Strategic Plan. —The Committee has reviewed NICHD’s 2020 Strategic Plan and believes that there is insufficient focus on behavioral health, cognition, development of young children, language, learning differences, and school readiness. NICHD has long history of funding critical and meritorious work in these areas. The Committee encourages NICHD to consider otherwise qualified grants in these areas on the same basis as any other areas of focus as it works to implement its strategic plan. (Page 112)

Learning Disabilities Research. —The Committee is concerned with the decline in achievement for students with disabilities and recognizes the need for continued research and improved interventions. The Committee recognizes the importance of NICHD’s funding of Learning Disabilities Research Centers and Learning Disabilities Innovation Hubs, which are the only source of Federal funding available to researchers interested in exploring child development and learning disabilities to conduct randomized control trials and explore the relationships between different variables at work. While learning disabilities affect an individual’s education and academic achievement, these disorders are brain-based, and clinical research using the latest technology and advances in neuroscience is essential. The Committee encourages NICHD to continue its robust research into language, reading development, learning disabilities, and disorders that adversely affect the development of listening, speaking, reading, writing, and mathematical abilities. The Committee also encourages NICHD to increase its investment in its Learning Disabilities Research Centers and Learning Disabilities Innovation Hubs. (Page 110)

Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR). — OBSSR was established to coordinate and promote basic, clinical, and translational research in the behavioral and social sciences in support of the NIH mission. The Committee supports OBSSR’s activities aimed at strengthening these sciences by enhancing trans-NIH investments in longitudinal datasets, technology in support of behavior change, innovative research methodologies, and promoting the inclusion of behavioral and social sciences in initiatives at the NIH Institutes and Centers. In partnership with other Institutes and Centers, OBSSR co-funds highly rated grants that these Institutions and Centers cannot fund alone, and coordinates NIH’s high- priority program on gun violence prevention research. (Page 139)

Behavioral Research. —The Committee believes that a more robust and focused NIH commitment to behavioral science research and training would yield significant improvements to the nation’s health due to the important connections between behavior and health. Most of the leading public health issues facing our nation — including cancer, addiction, heart disease, mental illness, diabetes, violence, and AIDS — are rooted in individual and social behavior, yet behavioral science is decentralized across NIH’s Institutes and Centers, and the NIH commitment to manage and directly fund this important research is limited. The Committee directs the Director to convene a special advisory panel of behavioral scientists and other community experts to complete an assessment providing recommendations on how to better integrate and realize the benefits to overall health from behavioral research at NIH. The Committee requests that this assessment be finalized before the end of fiscal year 2021 and that a report be submitted to the Committee at that time. (Page 128)

The bill also included several provisions tied to animal research, including encouraging NIH to incentivize non-animal research methods and expressing concern about the use of nonhuman primates in biomedical research. This language raises concerns for much of the research community, including the American Brain Coalition that advocates for the ethical use of animals in biomedical and behavioral research.

House CJS Appropriations Subcommittee Report:

Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE).—The Committee supports SBE and recognizes the fundamental importance of the research it supports in advancing our understanding of human behavior and its application to a wide range of human systems, including public health, national defense and security, education and learning, and the integration of human and machine. SBE funds over half of our nation’s university-based social and behavioral science research but remains one of the smallest NSF Directorates. The Committee believes this research provides an evidence-based understanding of the human condition, resulting in more-informed policymaking and better-informed spending on the full range of national issues. The committee believe that SBE-supported research makes the US unique among nations and recommends no less than the fiscal year 2020 levels for SBE activities. (Pages 133-134)

Federally Funded Scientific Research – In addition, at least 90 days prior to making any changes to the federal government’s public access policies as outlined in the 2013 OSTP memorandum on “Increasing Access to the Results of Federally Funded Scientific Research,” the Committee directs OSTP to submit to the Committee a report on the costs and budgetary impact of such changes. The report shall include a complete analysis of any newly created costs, including any potential new costs for grant recipients. (CJS Manager’s amendment, Page 5)