December 2012

Congress’ unfinished business

By most measures, the 112th Congress has been one of the least productive in recent history. However, the current lame-duck session gives lawmakers one final chance to make progress on some serious issues facing the biomedical research community. Here are a few of the legislative topics that we’ll be following as the 112th Congress comes to a close.

Sequestration: The fiscal cliff is rapidly approaching, and only a Congressional compromise on tax cuts, spending cuts and the debt ceiling can prevent the national economy from plunging over. Should sequestration, or across-the-board budget cuts, go into effect Jan. 2, the National Institutes of Health will see an 8.2 percent cut to its budget.

Will it happen? We see a 70 percent chance of a compromise plan that averts sequestration altogether, a 20 percent chance that legislators postpone sequestration and debate these cuts at a later date, and a 10 percent chance that sequestration happens.

The best scenario for biomedical research? Sequestration is averted and the NIH is funded at or above the level proposed in already-approved appropriations bills.

Immigration: Two bills have been proposed recently that could make it easier for Ph.D.s in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines to remain in the U.S. after receiving their degrees. However, the bills would redefine STEM to exclude the biomedical sciences. The reason for this exclusion is not clear, but it seems to ignore the important contributions foreign-born Ph.D.s make to public health and the U.S. economy.

Will it happen? We give it a 40 percent chance of becoming law. Keeping scientists and engineers in the U.S. after they’ve received Ph.D.s has bipartisan support, and the bill is scheduled to come up for debate during the lame-duck session. Congress has many bills of national importance to consider, though, and it is not clear if this bill will rise to the top or get lost in the shuffle. Check out our blog, the ASBMB Policy Blotter, for updates.

The best scenario for biomedical research? A bill is passed to allow all STEM Ph.D.s, including biomedical Ph.D.s, to participate in the new immigration policy.

Primate research: In June, the U.S. Senate passed the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act that effectively bans all research done on primates. There is a provision that would allow for experimentation on chimpanzees in response to an emerging or re-emerging threat of serious infectious disease.

Will it happen? We give this a 25 percent chance of becoming law. This legislation doesn’t have the kind of bipartisan support that the STEM immigration bill does and may not even be on the lame-duck session’s radar. However, it could be attached to another piece of legislation that has a good chance of passing.

The best scenario for biomedical research? The bill is defeated.

Travel: Travel to conferences for face-to-face communication and demonstration of new technologies and findings is an essential part of scientific progress. However, Congress is considering legislation that would severely curtail travel for all government employees. This would restrict the travel of scientists from the NIH and other federal research agencies to only one conference per year.

Will it happen? We give this an 80 percent chance of becoming law. The restrictive travel language is contained in an amendment to a Senate bill designed to maintain the fiscal solvency of the U.S. Postal Service. There is little opposition to the travel restrictions or the plan to save the U.S. Postal Service.

The best scenario for biomedical research? An exception will be included, as proposed by several groups, to exempt scientists from these travel restrictions.

Photo of Chris PickettChris Pickett ( is the science policy fellow at the ASBMB.

found= true2087