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As Defense Bill Moves to Vote, Researchers Review Results on Cancer, Satellite, and Other Science Provisions

20 December 2012 2:55 pm
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NASA

Go for launch. New defense bill could lift some restrictions on research projects involving science satellites, such as this government weather satellite launched earlier this year in California.

Congress today is expected to take the first step toward approving legislation that will authorize the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to spend $633 billion in 2013 and keep the Pentagon's basic research spending essentially flat at $2.1 billion.

That outcome was not unexpected, because both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act hewed closely to President Barack Obama's 2013 budget request. Earlier this week, conferees from both houses completed work on a compromise measure, which is expected to be approved by lawmakers and signed by the president.

The bill also includes several measures that are of interest to the scientific community.

The biomedical research community, for instance, had closely watched the final wording in a section of the bill dealing with "recalcitrant cancers." The measure was originally pushed by pancreatic cancer research advocates who wanted Congress to authorize money specifically to study those types of cancers. That didn't happen. Instead, the wording was watered down to direct the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to create a scientific framework for investigating tough-to-treat cancers. It includes no specific directives on spending.

"The legislation is a measured and balanced approach that complements ongoing research efforts at the NCI," said Julie Fleshman, president of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

Specifically, the institute must identify within 6 months two or more recalcitrant cancers that have a 5-year survival rate of less than 20%, or that kill at least 30,000 Americans each year. It must also prepare reports for Congress that identify efforts to study those cancers, and outline research agendas.

The measure caused friction between lobbyists for the pancreatic and lung cancer communities and medical researchers who argued that pouring money directly into a disease area undermines NCI's peer review process.

Research universities and the commercial satellite industry are lauding language that would loosen restrictions on technology exports and research rules related to spacecraft. Previously, some communications, research, and other civilian satellites were included on a list of military munitions, which triggered a wide range of regulations designed to prevent hostile nations and terrorist groups from obtaining U.S. technologies. It restricted the involvement of foreign scientists and students in some U.S. research projects, for instance. The defense bill moves authority over those spacecraft to the White House, which will have the authority to tailor less restrictive export controls on satellite technologies not deemed highly sensitive.

That move had been advocated by major research universities. "[T]he blanket statutory requirement that places all satellites on the U.S. Munitions List—even those that are dual-use and pose minimal national security risks—harms space science research," the Association of American Universities noted in a weekly wrap-up. "The policy has hindered the participation of leading international scholars and students in many space-related research projects and classes and has impeded U.S. space scientists from participating in legitimate and potentially valuable international scientific collaboration."

The commercial satellite industry was also happy with the outcome. "Ending this self-imposed burden on U.S. competitiveness in the global commercial satellite marketplace is critical to our national security and to ensuring the U.S. space industrial base stays second to none," Aerospace Industries Association president and CEO Marion C. Blakey said in a statement.

Defense and energy researchers were also tracking bill language related to the supply of much-needed "critical materials" for their work. Rare-earth minerals such as lanthanum, lutetium, yttrium, and scandium used to be mined and processed primarily in the United States. Much of that production is now based in China.

Language in the bill now requires the Secretary of Defense to ensure reliable sources of materials critical to national security "such as specialty metals, armor plate, and rare earth elements."

Biofuel advocates were heartened that the bill does not include language, passed by the House that would have barred the Pentagon from buying biofuels. But the bill falls short of the Obama administration's efforts to enable the Pentagon to invest heavily in biofuels R&D and production on its own. Conferees agreed that DOD can't spend money on these activities until it receives matching contributions from the departments of energy and agriculture.

The White House did win a concession on plans to build a new, multibillion-dollar Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building at the U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The administration said the facility, which would replace one heavily involved in nuclear weapons research and maintenance, can be deferred and wanted construction delayed for at least 5 years. Supporters of the facility had pushed for faster action. Conferees supported construction, but agreed that the building would not have to be operational until 2026.

Once Obama signs the bill into law, which could come as early as Friday, the research community will closely watch the Congressional appropriations process for the Defense Department to see if 2013 money flows the way the authorizing bill has outlined.