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Research spending could be the only silver lining for US science after election establishes divided government | Sciences

The US Congress returns this week after a tumultuous midterm election that left Republicans hoping to retake the House of Representatives and Democrats fared better than expected in retaining the Senate. A divided Congress could mean a bumpy ride for the US research community over the next 2 years.

The November 8 election results are likely to pave the way for aggressive Republican-led investigations into how the National Institutes of Health (NIH) responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and whether a laboratory leak in China led to the catastrophe, as well as closer scrutiny of President Joe Biden’s efforts to combat climate change and keep pace with China’s drive to become a technological superpower. Republican control of the House also increases the likelihood of political gridlock, preventing major new policy initiatives, such as deep cuts in federal spending or new climate regulations, by either party.

But science advocates are hopeful that partisan battles and gridlock won’t undermine traditional bipartisan support for research funding. If they’re right, the new Congress, which begins its 2-year term in January 2023, could come together to provide stable budgets, and perhaps even funding increases, for federal investigative agencies.

This week’s election did not generate a “red wave” that would have given Republicans the absolute numbers to push back parts of Biden’s agenda. Instead, they are prepared to retake the house by perhaps just half a dozen seats, though more than a dozen races remain to be determined. At the same time, retaining a seat held by Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) gives Democrats the 50 seats needed to maintain control of the Senate. And a victory in a runoff election next month in Georgia would give Democrats a 51st seat, giving them the leeway needed to advance the presidential nominations and do more to advance Biden’s agenda.

A Republican-led House will not be enough to advance that party’s agenda. But it will allow Republicans to pass “messaging” bills: legislation that has no chance of becoming law but shows their political philosophy ahead of the 2024 presidential election. In the field of science, for example, some Republican lawmakers they have talked about banning federal funding for certain types of research that could create more dangerous pathogens or cutting spending on environmental and climate research.

House Republicans also vowed to question Anthony Fauci, the soon-to-retire director of NIH’s institute of infectious diseases, about his role in the nation’s response to COVID-19, and to investigate whether state-funded work United at a research institute in Wuhan, China, played a role in sparking the pandemic. They also want to use the hearings to attack the Biden administration’s efforts to move away from fossil fuels. However, it will likely be difficult for Republicans to translate such research into new policy.

Whichever party ends up in control of the house, majorities will remain slim. Science advocates hope it will help promote at least some bipartisan cooperation on research spending.

The first signs could come as early as next week, when the current Congress tries to complete work on massive legislation that would set spending levels for all federal agencies in fiscal year 2023, which began Oct. 1. (Federal agencies are now under a spending freeze that expires Dec. 16, and it’s been years since Congress passed individual spending bills for groups of agencies.)

Any deal could have lasting effects: The 2023 numbers could become the baseline for spending in each of the next two fiscal years if lawmakers can’t agree on funding levels and simply freeze budgets. That number could end up being “the highest mark for science,” says a higher education lobbyist.

But advocates would like to see the new Congress do even more for science. They are pushing for double-digit annual funding increases for various research agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), called for in a recently passed law, the CHIPS and Science Act. They would also like to see the NIH budget keep up with inflation, or more. The outcome will depend on who ends up leading the Senate and House appropriations panels, a lineup that won’t be established until later this year, as well as decisions by party leaders on overall spending levels.

Science advocates are generally pleased with the likely next chairman of the House science committee if the House is taken by Republicans, Rep. Frank Lucas (OK). Currently the top Republican on the panel, Lucas has a history of working closely with Democrats to craft broadly bipartisan bills.

Under his leadership, the scientific committee is expected to closely watch how the Biden administration is implementing the myriad investigative provisions of CHIPS. (Lucas helped draft it, then reluctantly voted against it after Republican leaders decided to impose party discipline for political reasons.) traditionally receiving little and accelerating the commercialization of basic research discoveries, creating new industries and many high-paying jobs.

Issues important to the rural district of Lucas are also high on his agenda, including the reauthorization of a major bill governing US agricultural research policy, weather programs and regulation of drones.

As Lucas crosses the aisle, the retirement of the current science committee chair and 15-term veteran, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), could mean dealing with a younger generation of Democrats on the panel. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (OR), just re-elected to her sixth 2-year term, is set to be the top Democrat on the panel if she becomes the minority party. And Rep. Haley Stevens (D-MI), who just won a third term and now leads the panel’s investigative subcommittee, is seen as a rising star on the committee.

In biomedical research, the community is likely to continue. A former Republican appropriator hopes that his former colleagues will continue to view the NIH as the government’s crown jewel for research into the conquest of terrible diseases. “Who wants to fight their constituents when they come to Washington to demand that the government do more to find a cure for this or that disease?” says Charlie Dent, who retired from the Chamber in 2018 and is a member of the Research! America, a biomedical research advocacy group. At the same time, Dent says, the retirement of Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) means the NIH needs a new champion in the Senate.

Given the economic and fiscal struggles facing the nation, American researchers shouldn’t expect to get everything they want from the new Congress, says John Culberson, a Texas Republican who chaired the House spending panel that oversees NSF and NASA. before losing his House seat as part of a Democratic wave in 2018. But Culberson, now a lobbyist for Federal Science Partners, believes that Republican lawmakers likely to fill key positions in the next Congress “understand that greater support for science basic science and space exploration are good for the economy and important for the nation. And they will fund all the science the country, and the taxpayers, can afford.”

Update, November 14, 10:45 am: This story has been updated to reflect that Democrats are projected to take the Senate.

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