[CRS Issue Brief for Congress]

97018: Science, Technology, and Medicine: Issues Facing the 105th Congress, First Session

Updated February 21, 1997

Richard E. Rowberg
Science Policy Research Division

CONTENTS

SUMMARY

MOST RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

BACKGROUND AND ANALYSIS

Introduction
Issues
Research and Development Budget
Biomedical Research
Public and Environmental Health
Global Change
Transportation
Energy
Space
Telecommunications and Computers
Technology Development
Defense Research and Technology

LEGISLATION


SUMMARY

Science, technology, and medicine are an indisputable part of many of the policy issues that may come before the Congress this coming year. This report provides an overview of several of these issue and identifies CRS publications that treat them in more depth.

Legislative action in certain areas will directly affect the progress of science, technology, and medicine. Balancing the federal budget may have significant impacts on federal research and development (R&D) funding. How any cuts will be apportioned among the various R&D funding agencies and their programs may be major foci of debate. Closely intertwined will be continued examination of the proper federal role in supporting the national R&D effort. While Congress appears supportive of a strong national program, there is disagreement about the limits of the federal contribution.

Several legislative committees may address issues and consider legislation where science, technology, and medicine play a role. Congress may continue its review of goals and operations of the Food and Drug Administration in light of controversy about how to improve FDA regulatory efficiency while not impairing its role in protecting the public. Public health implications of reauthorization of the 1990 Clean Air Act appears to be a major source of controversy as do possible causes and implications of the Persian Gulf syndrome. Passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 raises a number of implementation issues including how to fulfill the requirement to install the "V-chip" to assist parental control of television access by children. Growing use of data encryption and its potential effects on law enforcement and national security activities may also be an important congressional issue.

There may be renewed attempts to eliminate or reduce the status of the Department of Energy. How such actions would affect DOE's R&D programs is of some concern. In addition, there is controversy over the scientific and technical merits of the DOE program to manage the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile. Proposals to restructure the electric utility industry may raise important questions about what would happen to the reliability of the nation's electric power supply.

Efforts to re-authorize the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act may generate debate about the transportation safety and technology aspects of that Act. The future of the space station in view of continued problems with Russian participation also may be called into question.


MOST RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

On January 21, legislation (S. 124) was introduced which would authorize a doubling of most civilian R&D funding between FY1997 and FY2007. At a hearing before the Clean Air Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, considerable disagreement was expressed by a panel of scientists about the evidence supporting health benefits of tighter clean air standards proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency. On February 6, the President released his budget for FY1998 which proposes level funding from FY1997 for all federally supported R&D. The budget request includes a $1.2 billion increase in civilian federal R&D funding, and a commensurate decrease for defense R&D.


BACKGROUND AND ANALYSIS

Introduction

Scientific, technological, and medical advances influence and are influenced by an increasing number of issues faced by Congress. Not only does Congress deal with issues whose primary policy focus is science, technology and/or medicine, but they affect issues in other areas such as public health, economic growth, national security, and other subjects of concern to Congress. To assist Congress in its legislative and oversight function, this issue brief provides an overview of scientific, technological and medical aspects of several of those issues.

This first class of issues appears most commonly in decisions about R&D funding levels. Regulatory and economic policy issues, however, such as proposals to reform the Food and Drug Administration, would also directly affect progress in science, technology, and medicine.

The second class of issues covers a much broader array of legislative activities. The deregulation of the telecommunications industry and proposals to do the same for the electric utility industry, owe much to the development of new communication and power generation technologies which make such deregulation possible. In the debate over economic policy, the growing realization of the importance of technological development to economic growth has elevated issues about how to foster such development. Medical advances have increased opportunities and difficulties in dealing with health care costs, privacy and insurance issues, and public health concerns. Foreign policy issues, such as arms control proposals, are increasingly influenced by advances in science and technology which offer better control and detection options. Implementation of welfare reform may be facilitated by availability of complex electronic database systems not possible a decade ago. There are many other examples where advances in science, technology, and medicine are changing the nature of the debate about major policy issues and affect the array of policy choices.

The scientific, technological and medical aspects of these issues can be major factors in developing national policy, but they are often complex. Advances may be more difficult to implement than anticipated. And, in some cases, they may have unintended consequences that complicate the broader policy issue. For example, while air bags have saved a large number of lives since their installation on automobiles, recent findings indicate that they can also cost lives under certain situations. How to resolve this situation has raised issues about auto safety regulation not foreseen when airbags were first mandated.

This report is organized by major topic area. Relevant CRS Issue Briefs and Reports are cited in the text. Information on other environment, natural resource and water, agriculture and energy issues is provided in a variety of other CRS products. Consult the CRS Home Page, the Guide to CRS Products, or call CRS on 7-5700 to obtain the cited reports or identify material in the other areas.

Issues

Research and Development Budget

Given fiscal restraints and because reductions were smaller than anticipated for FY1997, R&D funding for FY1998 may face significant challenges in the 105th Congress. Total federal civilian R&D spending in constant dollars is less for FY1997 than in FY1965 (CRS Issue Brief 96014). The Clinton Administration may argue for increased federal expenditures for civilian technology development and continued support for civilian basic research. The Congress, however, may be interested in reducing or eliminating funding of many applied research and technologydevelopment programs, while continuing support of basic and mission-oriented research. In addition, all sides will be looking for greater efficiencies in spending federal R&D dollars (CRS Issue Brief 94009).

Budget pressures are also intensifying concern about the health of the nation's research infrastructure -- its laboratories, equipment and facilities. Part of the reason that universities are seeking new sources of funding, including more private sector support, is to make up for reduction in federal funds used to maintain their research equipment and laboratories. In addition, the federal laboratories are finding that a greater share of R&D budgets are used just to support their major research facilities. Some argue that the solution to this problem is more efficient use of R&D funds, including closure of some laboratories.

The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), P.L. 103-62, requires that federal agencies move toward performance budgeting by the year 2001. Its implementation is closely related to R&D budget concerns. During the 105th Congress, committees may seek more oversight of R&D agencies as they continue to implement GPRA.

Biomedical Research

Biomedical research, supported principally by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), consumes about a third of federal civilian R&D dollars. Congress provided NIH with a 6.9% increase in funding for FY1997 above FY1996, by far the largest for any R&D funding agency (CRS Issue Brief 96014). For FY1998, the Congress will again be faced with balancing the needs of medical research funding with those of other discretionary programs. With continuing pressure to balance the budget by 2002, however, it seems questionable whether such increases can continue. The President has requested a 2.6% increase for NIH for FY1998 which is below the projected growth in the biomedical research cost index 3.1%. Priority setting among the NIH units, between laboratory and clinical research, and between intramural and extramural programs, may be particularly difficult and contentious. A related issue is the decline of resources for clinical research available to academic medical facilities as a result of the growth of managed care programs. Proposals to make up some of these lost resources through NIH may be introduced.

In addition, Congress will consider reauthorization legislation for NIH. A bill passed the Senate in 1996 (Kassebaum, "NIH Revitalization Act of 1996," S. 1897, S.Rept. 104-364) but was not considered in the House. The Senate bill extended various authorizations through FY1997, added focus on several disease research areas, and had provisions for encouraging clinical research. It would have converted the Human Genome Center to an Institute, reducing NIH administrative structure, and establishing a trust fund for biomedical research (CRS Report , The National Institutes of Health: An Overview). Potentially contentious issues related to the use of human fetal tissue or human embryos in research were not covered in the Senate bill but may be debated in the 105th Congress (CRS Report , Human Embryo Research).

Public and Environmental Health

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reform efforts were a significant legislative priority of the 104th Congress (CRS Issue Brief 96004). Senate and House committees considered major initiatives to reform the agency, but legislation was not enacted before adjournment. Some elements of those proposals were incorporated in other legislative measures that were enacted (such as export of unapproved drugs, biologics and devices in P.L. 104-134; streamlining animal drug regulation in P.L. 104-250; and delaying FDA's voluntary patient information "MedGuide" proposal in P.L. 104-180). Controversial FDA reform issues not acted on, such as third-party review, drug information dissemination, and clinical research requirements, may be introduced in the 105th Congress. The Prescription Drug User Act of 1992, whose authorization expires in 1997, may be a legislative vehicle for reform proposals.

In environmental health, issues associated with undiagnosed diseases in Persian Gulf Veterans will likely be a topic of legislative activity. Moreover, the Environmental Protection Agency recently published a proposal to tighten the clean air standards related to ozone and particulates (CRS Issue Brief 97007). Public health implications of that proposal probably will be the subject of congressional oversight and scrutiny as will public health issues related to Superfund reauthorization (CRS Issue Brief 95013). In addition, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration is investigating ergonomic risks in the workplace that may be subject to oversight attention from the 105th Congress.

The 104th Congress passed the "Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 1995 (H.R. 1833), but it was vetoed by President Clinton. The bill would have made it a crime to perform a so-called "partial-birth" abortion, unless it is necessary to save the life of a mother (CRS Report , Abortion Procedures). President Clinton stated that he would sign a bill amended to add an exception for "serious health consequences." This legislation will likely be debated again in the 105th Congress.

Global Change

Members of Congress, particularly those from farm states, are interested in the possible repercussions of regulating the use of methyl bromide in planting and post-harvest applications. The chemical is suspected of contributing to stratospheric ozone depletion. The 1990 Clean Air Act requirements about use and phase-out of methyl bromide may be reviewed. Congress may consider whether the Environmental Protection Agency should permit special allowances for essential uses after the January 2001 phaseout.

Climate change is also a topic of continuing congressional interest (CRS Issue Brief 89005). Many argue that policy action to reduce emissions should be taken now. Others argue for delay, citing scientific uncertainty and the need to expand future options. Federal agency programs that fund global change research have been reduced in the past 2 years, and reductions may continue in the 105th Congress. Congress may review these programs in the coming session to ensure that they contribute usable information on which policy choices about potential global change can be made. In December 1997, a Protocol to the Framework Convention is scheduled for completion. It would set binding limits and deadlines on emissions of greenhouse gases past 2000 is scheduled for completion.

Transportation

Legislation passed during the 104th Congress increases security at the Nation's largest airports. Congress may further consider the level of security needed, the impact of new security devices and procedures on passengers' health and privacy, and public acceptance issues. In addition, the relatively large number of commercial aircraft fatalities last year may result in congressional efforts to review the safety of the nation's airlines.

The surface transportation focus for the 105th Congress is likely to be on reauthorization of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). Several provisions of the Act are designed to improve highway safety, and Congress may examine the efficacy and costs of these programs. In addition, funding levels and goals of the Intelligent Transportation Systems program, also an ISTEA provision, are likely to be important issues. Recent events have shown that under certain conditions air bags can be lethal. The 105th Congress is likely to investigate this situation and may consider corrective legislation (CRS Report , Automobile Air Bags: New Issues/ New Research).

Energy

Restructuring the electric utility industry is likely to be a major issue facing the 105th Congress (CRS Issue Brief 96003). While the debate is focused primarily on economic aspects, there are serious questions about the potential effect of restructuring on power supply reliability and the technical feasibility of open transmission access. In addition, many are concerned about the impacts of a more competitive market on renewable energy development and energy conservation.

A potential issue is the effectiveness of federal programs to enhance energy conservation and renewable energy development, particularly the joint government/auto industry Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles. Many believe that funding for these programs should be eliminated or reduced because they are unnecessary subsidies to the private sector. Others believe that federal/private sector partnerships are the most effective way to make progress in these areas. At issue is how best to reduce oil import dependency and the environmental effects of energy production (CRS Issue Brief 93063 and CRS Issue Brief 95085).

There may be renewed attempts to eliminate or reconfigure the Department of Energy. Such actions could have significant impact on the DOE's R&D programs. Much of that research is carried out at the DOE laboratories which could be closed or sharply cutback in any move to change DOE (CRS Issue Brief 95110). In addition, many would like to maintain funding for DOE's basic research efforts, regardless of its fate as a cabinet agency.

Space

NASA's declining budget and resulting restructuring, progress on the space station program, and space commercialization are framing the debate over the FY1998 civilian space budget (CRS Report , The National Aeronautics and Space Administration: An Overview with FY1996 and FY1997 Budget Summaries). Whether Congress can continue to rein in NASA funding and still permit the diverse set of programs it has in human spaceflight, science, technology, and aeronautics continues to be a question. The space station program continues to be controversial, especially the role of Russia (CRS Issue Brief 93017). Turning some NASA activities (such as space shuttle operations) over to the private sector, and creating incentives for private companies to invest in space -based research, are among options being debated (CRS Issue Brief 92011). The most controversial issues involve the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), an agency within DOD that builds reconnaissance satellites. One debate concerns the potential for reducing the size (and hence the cost) of reconnaissance satellites, while another focusses on management of NRO itself which, in 1995 and 1996, was discovered to have amassed almost $4 billion in unspent funds. Other issues include continuing efforts to integrate, more effectively, planning for military and intelligence space activities and whether to resume development of an anti-satellite capability.

Telecommunications and Computers

Oversight of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by the 105th Congress may include FCC efforts to implement the provisions of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, including universal service and related proposals to connect schools and libraries to the Internet, and interconnection to the local telephone network (CRS Issue Brief 95067). Congress may also debate federal funding to support the development of the National Information Infrastructure (NII) (CRS Issue Brief 95051) and is likely to consider intellectual property issues related to digital transmission and database protection.

The Telecommunications Act requires installation of a device called a "V-chip" in most future television sets to block the display of television shows with ratings that parents consider unacceptable for their children. The television industry was required by the Act to develop, by February 8, 1997, a "voluntary" ratings system acceptable to the FCC. The industry developed such a ratings system, and in accordance with the Act, the FCC must decide whether to approve it or create its own. Congressional views are split on the industry proposal (CRS Report , V-Chip and TV Ratings: Helping Parents Supervise Their Children's Television Viewing).

Increased interest in the use of data encryption to ensure privacy and security has resulted in sharp debate over what access the government should have to encrypted information for law enforcement or national security purposes. The debate in the upcoming session is expected to focus on export policies for strong encryption products, and the use of "key recovery" to allow court-ordered government access to the key required for decryption (CRS Issue Brief 96039).

The management of the radio spectrum is another topic likely to receive legislative attention in the 105th Congress either through budget proposals or in separate bills. Concerns about revenue goals driving spectrum policy, potential inequities in issuing free advanced television spectrum licenses without the use of auctions, and public safety spectrum needs are likely to dominate the debate (CRS Report , Advanced Television Radiofrequency Spectrum Issues).

Congressional interest in ensuring accountability for the multi-billion dollar federal agency investment in information technology appears to be high on the agenda. Actions are likely to include oversight of the Information Technology Management Reform Act of 1996, P.L. 104-106; debates over funding for major systems modernization projects, such as those at the Federal Aviation Administration and the Internal Revenue Service; and consideration of proposed remedies for the "year 2000" computer problem. Updating the federal printing statutes to reflect today's digital environment and maintain public access to government information also may surface on the congressional agenda.

Technology Development

The 105th Congress is expected to continue the debate over the role of the federal government in technology development (CRS Issue Brief 91132). Many in Congress argue that federal support of these programs should be halted and replaced by incentives such as tax credits, to provide the additional capital resources necessary for expanded private sector investment in R&D. Also being explored are the benefits and costs of alternative and/or complementary efforts to facilitate technological progress, including cooperative R&D activities, joint manufacturing ventures, industry-university collaboration, and expanded use of intellectual property rights (CRS Issue Brief 89056). Of growing interest is the role of states in supporting technology development and R&D in general.

Defense Research and Technology

Funding for research and development (R&D) makes up 15% of the entire defense budget, up from a 20-year average of around 12%. Some Members contend that this is too high, while others believe that additional funds are needed (CRS Issue Brief 96014). A major point of contention is the ballistic missile defense (BMD) program. With current funding 23% higher than what the Administration had requested for FY1997, BMD is the largest ($3.4 billion) R&D program in the federal government. Specific issues within this debate include the problems in testing of the Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) missile system and the costs of a National Missile Defense system.

This year DOD will reassess its basic military strategy and required force structure. There is likely to be continued pressure both from Congress and the Administration to increase funding for modernization. Such actions could result in increases in the development portion of the R&D budget and a concomitant decline in the science and technology portion. Other issues that may be revisited include dual-use programs - - technologies with both civilian and defense applications, and the Joint Strike Fighter program. DOD's basic research program may also receive congressional attention about its relevance to DOD's overall mission.

A related defense issue concerns the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship program. The program is based on science and technology to maintain the stockpile, and some in Congress believe it is not being adequately developed by DOE. Others believe that DOE is building a more elaborate scientific infrastructure than is needed to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent. This issue is likely to be debated during consideration of defense authorization and DOE appropriations (CRS Issue Brief 97002 and CRS Issue Brief 92099). A focal point of the debate is the National Ignition Facility, a very large laser now under construction design, for simulating certain aspects of nuclear explosions. Some question the potential value of this facility, expected to cost $1.2 billion.


LEGISLATION

S. 124 (Gramm) National Research Investment Act of 1997. A bill to invest in the future of the United States by doubling the amount authorized for basic science and medical research. Introduced January 21, 1997; referred to Committee on Labor and Human Resources.

S.Res. 15 (Mack)
Biomedical Research Commitment Resolution of 1997. A resolution expressing the sense of the Senate that the commitment to biomedical research should be increased substantially over the next 5 years. Introduced January 21, 1997; referred to Committee on Appropriations.