Policy Issues Affecting the Physics Community in the 112th Congress (2011-2012)

The GRANT Act was approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in mid-November 2011. AIP’s FYI article states, “in addition to a provision requiring the disclosure of peer reviewers, the 21-page bill also requires federal agencies to post on a website ‘a copy of any proposal, application, or plan submitted for the awarded grant, including any amendment to the proposal, application, or plan (whether made before or after the award of the grant). (See Section 7404 (d) Grant Award Information (B) of the bill.”

The disclosure of peer reviewers and other troubling portions of this bill were brought on by Members of Congress wanting to increase government transparency and accountability. The American Institute of Physics along with 83 other organizations including the American Association of Physics Teachers, the American Astronomical Society, the American Geophysical Union and the Optical Society signed a letter to every Member of the House of Representatives regarding the effects that the GRANT Act would have on the scientific process. The American Physical Society sent a letter that was endorsed by AIP to the Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The bill did not make it to the House floor and therefore will not become law.

Spending for Scientific Conferences
In an effort to reduce costs and address concerns surrounding an incident at a GSA conference in Las Vegas, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) instructed federal agencies to spend at least 30 percent less on travel in FY 2013 than in FY 2010. These reductions must be maintained, according to the memo, through FY 2016. The memo requests that agencies describe their plans to reach these proposed reductions and further states that “Federal agencies and employees must exercise discretion and judgment in ensuring that conference expenses are appropriate, necessary, and managed in a manner that minimizes expenses to taxpayers.” Agencies will, according to this memo, be required to report conference expenses in excess of $100,000 and would prohibit expenses that were in excess of $500,000 for a single conference unless the agency head provides a written waiver from this policy.

Professional societies expressed concern these restrictions could have significant negative consequences for the science community because it would undermine the ability for government scientists to participate in conferences and scientific meetings. Science societies and other groups have authored letters on this issue to highlight the negative effect this would have on the research community. Several AIP Member Societies including the American Astronomical Society, American Geophysical Union, and the Optical Society signed onto a letter written by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Presidents of the American Physical Society and the American Chemical Society jointly authored an op-ed.

Department of Education Program Restructuring
The American Institute of Physics was among over 50 organizations, including the American Association of Physics Teachers, American Geophysical Union, American Physical Society, and the Optical Society which supported an amendment, introduced by Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) restoring $51 million in proposed cuts to the FY 2013 budget for the Mathematics and Science Partnerships (MSP) program at the Department of Education. The MSP program is the only Department of Education program specifically aimed at enhancing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teacher training and content knowledge.

AIP’s FYI article notes that “it appears that the $51 million potential cut was an attempt to allow the MSP program to move from the current formula grant system, where each state receives proportionate funding, to a competitive grant system where each state would compete for grant money. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“No Child Left Behind”) contains a provision that stipulates that if MSP program funding drops below $100 million, the funding for that program would be distributed on a competitive rather than formula basis. Under a competitive grant system, the value of each grant would be higher but the number of grants awarded would be lower, likely approximately 10-12 grants would be issued. Management of the competitive grant process would fall to the Department of Education, which would have more control over the issuing of the grants. Under a formula grants system, each of the 50 states would receive funding for STEM-related teacher training.”

STEM Immigration Visas
The House of Representatives passed HR 6429, the STEM Jobs Act, on November 30, by a vote of 245-139. HR 6429 would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to make up to 55,000 visas available to immigrants who have a doctorate degree in a field of “computer and information sciences and support services, engineering, mathematics and statistics, and physical sciences” from a US university, agree to work five years for a US employer, and who have taken all their doctoral coursework while physically present in the US. The bill also applies to immigrants who hold a master’s degree in a field of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) from a US university, have taken all their coursework while physically present in the US, and hold a baccalaureate degree in a STEM field including the group of biological and biomedical sciences. The bill was stopped in the Senate because of a disagreement over the elimination of the Diversity Visa Program, a program that makes visas available to immigrants from countries with low immigration rates to the United States.

For more information, contact:
Beth Cunningham, Executive Officer, American Association of Physics Teachers bcunningham@aapt.org
Aline McNaull, Policy Associate, American Institute of Physics amcnaull@aip.org
Tyler Glembo, Government Relations Specialist, American Physical Society glembo@aps.org