S&T Policy Briefs: Highlights for April-May

BY IEEE-USA Staff Posted: 1 May 2014

The following are brief highlights of important U.S. S&T legislative and policy developments from the past 60 days.

Patent Reform Bill Stalled in Senate

The House of Representatives passed a sweeping patent reform bill last November aimed at stopping so-called �patent Trolls� from litigating dubious patents.  Swift action was expected to follow in the Senate, but so far that has not happened.  The Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled mark-ups for the Patent Improvement and Transparency Act (S. 1720) in April and early May, only to be postponed.  Committee member Charles Schumer (D-NY) has warned supporters that if the bill isn't reported out of committee successfully by the end of May, it is unlikely to pass Congress this year.

One of the biggest sticking points appears to be "fee shifting," a proposed requirement that the losing party of a patent infringement lawsuit pay the winner's court and legal fees. Sens. Schumer and John Cornyn (R-Texas) are working on a compromise proposal designed to win over committee members concerned that the risk of fee-shifting will stifle the ability of small companies and independent innovators to defend their patents.

Presidential Advisors Report on Big Data and Privacy

As part of a broader White House review of federal policy regarding big data and privacy, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a report on 1 May that analyzes the technological dimensions of the big data transformation and its significance for the future of privacy.

In its report, PCAST distinguishes big data from data at smaller scales, describes the growth of cloud computing and other changes to the infrastructure for handling of big data, looks at big data intensive domains such as heathcare and education, assesses the evolution of data analysis tools and explores technology opportunities and limitations for protecting privacy.

Not surprisingly, PCAST concludes that technical measures are not sufficient for protecting privacy and offers five specific recommendations to help guide federal policy-making:

  1. Policy attention should focus more on the actual uses of big data and less on its collection and analysis.

  2. Policies and regulation at all levels of government should not embed particular technological solutions, but rather should be stated in terms of intended outcomes.

  3. With coordination and encouragement from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the agencies of the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development program should strengthen U.S. research in privacy-related technologies and in the relevant areas of social science that inform the successful application of those technologies.

  4. OSTP together with the appropriate educational institutions and professional societies should encourage increased education and training opportunities concerning privacy protection, including career paths for professionals.

  5. The United States should take the lead both in the international arena and at home by adopting policies that stimulate the use of practical privacy-protecting technologies that exist today.

U.S. Applauds Outcomes of Internet Governance Summit

On 23-24 April, 1480 representatives of governments, the private sector, civil society groups, academia, technical groups (including IEEE), other non-governmental organizations, gathered in Brazil for a global multistakeholder meeting on the future of Internet Governance.  The resulting consensus report outlined a series of common principles and a roadmap for the future evolution of Internet governance.

Representatives of the Obama Administration responded enthusiastically to the Net.Mundial report, labeling it a �major win for the open Internet.�  Members of the U.S. government delegation blogged  the following response on 30 April:

As one of Brazil's leading Internet scholars and chair of Netmundial Virgilio Almeida brought NETmundial to a close, the U.S. government delegation rose in applause.  And almost everyone else in the room rose with us.  We applauded to affirm the Multistakeholder Statement of S�o Paulo, the ideas it presents, the ideals it embraces, and the multistakeholder process that made it possible.  We rose out of appreciation for the Brazilians and the Internet community leaders that brought us together and impressively managed a challenging conversation.  And we rose in joint commitment to preserving, promoting, and expanding the benefits of a single, interoperable, open, and global Internet for all of the world's people.

The stage for Netmundial had been set in part by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's 19 March announcement that it had asked the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to convene global stakeholders to develop a proposal to transition the U.S. government's stewardship of the Internet's Domain Name System (DNS).

Congress is closely scrutinizing developments, with the House Energy and Commerce Committee set to vote soon on the Domain Openness Through Continued Oversight Matters (DOTCOM) Act (H.R. 4342), legislation by Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) that would direct the Government Accountability Office to study the proposed changes and present a non-partisan evaluation before the administration can act to modify the current DNS arrangement.  The bill was the subject of an April 9 hearing, after which full committee chair, Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) offered �We must take our time and ensure that any successor to NTIA holds the same values we have instilled in the Internet and will resist efforts by governments to take control of the root zone. Once we transfer this oversight role away, there's no going back.�

Science Committee Chair and National Science Foundation Battle Over Research Priorities and Peer Review

On 13 March, the House Science Subcommittee on Research and Technology approved the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act  (H.R. 4186). The bill reauthorizes and streamlines federal investments at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) by funding research and development (R&D) to address national needs.  

Among the provisions, the FIRST Act would significantly reduce funding allocated to social sciences research in the NSF's Social, Behavioral, and Economics Directorate and require NSF officials to certify that each research grant is �(1) is worthy of federal funding and (2) is in the national interest.'�   Six national interest criteria are specified as justifications, including contribution of the research to U.S. economic competitiveness, national health, STEM workforce and literacy, academic-industry partnerships, or national defense, as well as NSF's statutory mission of promoting the progress of science.

The bill has drawn widespread criticism from science and engineering groups who characterize it as a dangerous injection of politics into science and an attack on NSF's merit-based system for awards research grants.  Others, including President Science Advisor John Holdren, have warned against attempts to narrow NSF�s mission of advancing the progress of science by imposing a national interest filter for prioritizing research.

On 24 April, the National Science Board, a panel of 25 distinguished scientists and engineers appointed to provide policy advice and oversight on NSF's research goals and operations, released a statement raising concerns with the FIRST Act, noting:

�some of its provisions and tone suggest that Congress intends to impose constraints that would compromise NSF's ability to fulfill its statutory purpose. Some elements of the bill would also impose significant new burdens on scientists that would not be offset by gains to the nation. Our greatest concern is that the bill's specification of budget allocations to each NSF Directorate would significantly impede NSF's flexibility to deploy its funds to support the best ideas in fulfillment of its mission to "promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes."

Adding more fuel to the fire, the National Science Board released a related report highlighting the already heavy administrative burden on researchers with the headline �Excessive Regulations Turning Scientists into Bureacrats.�  Chairman Smith has not been deterred by the critics, responding that:

The NSF wants to be the only federal agency to get a blank check signed by taxpayers, without having to justify how the money is spent. The NSF's new internal policy omits any commitment to make awards that are in the �national interest,' a standard that should guide taxpayer-funded grants. Under the Obama administration there has been a shift in priorities from engineering and the physical sciences to more taxpayer-funded social, behavioral and economic (SBE) research. Basic research in the physical sciences drives economic growth, produces new technologies and creates jobs.  The Committee's support for NSF's important work is reflected in the fact that the FIRST Act authorizes more funding than the President's budget request.  But to regain America's scientific edge the Committee will adjust priorities for taxpayer-supported research.

NSF Finds Support With House Appropriators

Undeterred by the House Science Committee-NSF imbroglio, budget appropriators on the House Commerce, Justice, Science Subcommittee, chaired by retiring Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), approved their piece of the FY2015 appropriations omnibus bill on 29 April, earmarking $7.4 billion for support of National Science Foundation and its research and education programs. 

Although not as generous as the $7.5 million budget proposed in a Dear Colleague letter circulated by 94 Democratic legislators in the House, which was endorsed by IEEE-USA and other science and engineering societies, the House Appropriations mark represents an increase over the White  House's $7.3 million request and constitutes NSF's largest budget to date.

The House FY2015 appropriations bill for science also funds NASA at $17.9 billion (including a $100 million increase for aeronautics research) and provides the National Institute of Standards and Technology with $856 million (a $5.8 million increase over FY 2014), including $130 million for continuation of the National Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

NASA FY 2014 Authorization Advances in House

On 7 April, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology today approved the NASA Authorization Act (H.R. 4412) with unanimous bipartisan support.  The bill authorizes $17.6 billion in funding for NASA programs for the current fiscal year (FY 2014), which roughly matches funding made available for appropriation to NASA in last year's budget deal.

The NASA Authorization Act of 2014 continues a go-as-you-can-afford-to-pay approach to space exploration, with $4.1 billion authorized for development of an exploration roadmap, continued development of the Space Launch System and the Orion Crew Vehicle, and an emphasis on access to low Erath orbit.

The final bill language, offered by Space Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) and Ranking Member Donna Edwards (D-Md.), also increases the use of the International Space Station for science research, encourages commercial use of space, focuses resources on the problems of solar radiation remediation and orbital debris, and commits to completion of the James Webb Space Telescope.

The $566 million authorized for aeronautics research includes a focus on unmanned aerial systems, composition materials for aeronautics, hyperson and supersonic systems, NextGen airspace management, rotorcraft research, and transformative aeronautics R&D.  The bill also directs NASA to arrange for a National Academy study of U.S. leadership in aeronautics to benchmark our relative global position in civil aeronautics research.

Air Force Office of Scientific Research to Stay Put

The Air Force has shelved plans to relocate the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) from its current location in Arlington, Virginia to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.  AFOSR manages funding of basic research by academia for the Air Force and the Director of Defense Research and Engineering.  Plans to consolidate the AFOSR with the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson as a budget savings measure raised concerns about the impact of the proposed move on AFOSR's ability to sustain its basic research mission due to staff attrition and the lurking specter of major budget cuts associated with the move. 

In February, IEEE-USA released a position statement expressing concerns regarding the proposed move and worked with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee in an effort to obtain an independent assessment of the proposed move.  Several other science and engineering societies also raised concerns.  However, a final decision that AFOSR would stay put was confirmed by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 10 April. 

White House Expands H-1B Program

On 6 May, the White House proposed a set of new rules that would apply to workers on H-1B visas. The first of these removes a regulatory requirement that applies only to workers from Chile and Singapore (H-1B workers) and Australia (on an E-3 visa). Under the proposed rules, these workers would no longer have to apply for a separate DHS work authorization in addition to their visa applications. The rules also extend some deadlines within these visa programs.

The White House has also proposed allowing spouses of H-1B workers to work in some cases. Spouses of H-1B workers are entitled to an H-4 visa, which allows them live in the United States, but not to work. Under the White House proposal, once an H-1B worker has been sponsored by their employer for a green card, their spouse may work even if the EB visa has not been issued yet. Since it can take up to 10 years for an EB visa to become available, this represents a significant change for many spouses.

IEEE-USA has supported work authorizations for H-1B spouses in the past, but within the context of broader visa reform. While the new rules would certainly improve the lives of many H-1B families, they come with risks. Individuals working on an H-4 would still be dependent on their spouses' H-1B, meaning that if the H-1b spouse loses his/her job, both spouses would be unemployed and at risk of losing their residency status. One of the flaws of the H-1B visa is that, because the visa is owned by the company and not the individual, H-1B workers are tied to their employer in a way that makes them easy to exploit. The new H-1B rules, while helpful in some respects, would also make workers even more dependent upon their employer.

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