A newly released Congressional Research Service report, Science and Technology Issues in the 116th Congress, notes how science and technology (S&T) continues to have a pervasive influence over a wide range of issues now confronting the nation. This includes how public and private research and development (R&D) will continue to spur scientific advancement.
However, federal responsibility for S&T policy making remains high decentralized, and in addition to appropriating funding for S&T programs, congress continues to enact laws to establish, refine and even eliminate programs, policies, regulations, regulatory agencies, and regulatory processes that rely on S&T data and analysis.
“Congressional authorities related to S&T policy making are diffuse,” the report noted.
“Now that’s an understatement,” said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel for the Professional Services Council.
“Of course the report noted that ‘Executive agency responsibilities for S&T policymaking are also diffuse.’ That suggests there is chaos on the one hand, and confusion on the other, so you take your pick,” Chvotkin told ClearanceJobs. “Therein lays the challenge to find the support while facing opposition. Neither the congress nor the executive branch does a good job of actually talking about what this means for the job market. It is clear they can tackle the input, but there was less on the outputs of what we are getting for this technology.”
Defense in S&T POLICY MAKING
The Department of Defense (DoD) relies on robust R&D efforts to develop new military systems and improve on existing systems. The DoD’s ability to maintain a technological edge depends increasingly upon external sources for innovation for its weapons and other systems. That presents opportunities for defense contractors in 2019 and beyond.
At present the DoD spends more than $90 billion per year on research, development, testing and evaluation (RDT&E), and roughly 80-85% of that is spent on the design, development and testing of specific military systems. At present the DoD’s RDT&E budget contains hundreds of individual line items, and congress provides the oversight of the program. This includes making adjustments to the amount of funding requested for any specific number of line items.
Even with the political party holding the purse strings changing, it’s unlikely there will be major changes to the amount invested in defense research.
“The change to the party in control isn’t going to be that significant,” said Chvotkin. “There has always been strong support for these sectors.”
In fact, RDT&E priorities and focus, notably those of the S&T portion, generally do not change radically from year to year – but a few fundamental policy-related issues regularly do attract congressional attention. These include ensuring that S&T, most notably basic research, will receive sufficient funding to support the next generation capabilities, which ensure the transition of technology from the laboratory to the field.
One other factor that could play a role this year is that senior DoD officials have called for the need to develop and implement a strategy aimed at identifying new and innovative ways to maintain the dominance of U.S. military capabilities into the future.
Energy in S&T Policy making
It isn’t just the DoD impacted by S&T policy making in 2019. Energy-related issues also come before the 116th Congress. These include issues related to reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, advances in nuclear energy technology and the development of biofuels and ocean energy technology, as well as international fusion research.
The Congressional Research Service report suggests the level of funding for nuclear fuel cycle and waste disposal R&D may be a continuing issue in the 116th Congress. This comes as the Trump Administration proposed deep reductions in Fuel Cycle R&D in FY 2018 and FY 2019. However, the Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2018 (P.L. 115-141) increased the program’s funding from $208 million in FY 2017 to $260 million in FY 2018, which was a 26% boost. Funding also increased slightly further to $264 million, by the Energy and Water, Legislative Branch, and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act, 2019 (P.L. 115-244).
Another area that may come before the 116th Congress will be that of advanced nuclear energy technology, given that all currently operating commercial nuclear power plants in the United States are still based on light water reactor (LWR) technology. With this system, ordinary water cools the reactor and acts as a neutron moderator to help sustain the nuclear chain reaction.
The Department of Energy (DoE) has conducted research and development work on other, non-LWR nuclear technologies that could have advantages in safety, waste management, and cost. In addition, there are a growing number of private-sector firms that are pursuing commercialization of advanced nuclear technologies.
Alternative energy, including biofuels – liquid transportation fuels produced from biomass feedstock – is among an issue that will be closely considered by Congress. The former is one that some regard as potentially being more harmful to the environment than the benefits it presents, and the debate over the feasibility is complex with a multitude of factors to consider.
Deepwater oil and gas operations will also remain another issue of debate, due to the dangers of catastrophic oil spills. Congress may also consider technology issues related to offshore drilling in the Arctic, where sea ice and infrastructure gaps pose challenges for the economic viability and safety of mineral exploration, the report noted.
“Congress will be looking at these S&T issues closely,” said Chvotkin. “These will include not only the classic legislative issues, but also appropriations, which have the most direct ties to jobs,” he added. “As they fund or fail to fund R&D in these areas it will have a direct impact on contracts that can be presented to the private sector. The third area in all this is oversight – this can draw visibility to the opportunity or even the need for these projects.”
Given the calls for a “Green New Deal,” energy issues will be closely watched.
“We can expect hearings around the climate to be an enabler to a topic,” explained Chvotkin. “This can be a positive or a negative for the job market for contractors, especially if there is criticism on the spending or even on how contractors are spending money.”