Government Relations

Government Relations Legislative Update

Government Relations Legislative Update

Updates on state and federal issues relating to the UW System.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Federal Update for July 28, 2011

Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ruled in favor of the Obama Administration in the continuing lawsuit over federal funding of human embryonic stem cell (ESC) research, dismissing the case brought by two adult stem cell scientists and allowing federal funding to continue unabated.

Judge Lamberth initially dismissed the case nearly two years ago for lack of standing on the part of the plaintiffs, but the Court of Appeals overturned that ruling last April.  Upon reexamining the case, Lamberth surprised the research community by finding in favor of the plaintiffs and ordering an immediate halt of federal ESC funding through a preliminary injunction.  The Court of Appeals then overturned the injunction, allowing funding to move forward, but consideration of the merits of the case remained in the lower court.  The ruling yesterday by Judge Lamberth was on the merits of the case.

The plaintiffs presented two arguments in opposition to federal funding of ESC research. First, they argued that ESC research funding violated the Dickey-Wicker amendment, which is attached to the bill that funds NIH each year and forbids federal funds from being used for destruction of embryos. Judge Lamberth ruled that, because Dickey-Wicker is ambiguous and does not specifically apply to ESC, NIH's interpretation that the provision allows funding of ESC research was reasonable.  The plaintiffs' second argument was that in promulgating guidelines for conduct of ESC research, in which public comment was requested on the content of the guidelines, NIH violated the Administrative Procedures Act because the agency ignored comments that stated the government should not fund ESC research at all.  The judge found that NIH acted correctly in gauging those comments to be irrelevant, since the question asked was not whether the government should fund such research, but under what ethical guidelines it should move forward.

While this represents an important victory for the research community, it must be noted that there is still some cause for concern. The plaintiffs have 60 days to appeal the ruling, so there may be additional action in the lawsuit.  In addition, as part of the ruling, Judge Lamberth reaffirmed the Court of Appeals finding which granted standing to the plaintiffs based on competitive disadvantage stating, "[b]ecause there is a fixed amount of money available for research grants, and because the Guidelines will increase the number of grant applications involving embryonic stem cells" the plaintiffs have a smaller pool of funds available to them for which to compete. This remains a troubling precedent, since it implies that decisions made by NIH to direct funding towards one type of research versus another could be subject to a lawsuit.

The competing plans for reducing budget deficits and raising the federal debt ceiling issued by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) both would have important effects on higher education.  

Both plans would eliminate the ability of graduate and professional students to take out subsidized Stafford loans, beginning on July 1, 2012.  This proposal was also included in the President's FY12 budget.  The Boehner plan, however, contains exemptions relating to students taking prerequisite coursework for degrees or certificate programs and students in programs leading to teaching certification.

Both plans include mandatory spending to help fill the funding gap in the Pell Grant program.  The Boehner plan provides $9 billion in mandatory spending in FY12 and $8 billion in FY13.   The Reid proposal includes $10.5 billion in mandatory funds in FY12 and $7.5 billion in FY13.  Thus, the House plan is $2 billion short of filling the current Pell Grant gap, while the Senate plan is only short $.5 billion.

The Boehner plan sunsets the Secretary of Education's authority to provide incentives for on-time repayment of students loans on July 1, 2012, and it prohibits the creation of any such incentives, with one exception for borrowers who make electronic payments.  The Reid plan does not contain a similar provision.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on July 22 named Dr. E. William (Bill) Colglazier as her Science & Technology Adviser.  Congress established the position of Science & Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State in 2000; Dr. Colglazier is the fourth individual to hold the position.  

Dr. Colglazier's most recent position was Executive Officer of the National Academy of Sciences and Chief Operating Officer of the National Research Council. He holds a Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from the California Institute of Technology and was formerly a Professor of Physics at the University of Tennessee.
In a notice to staff, the State Department noted that the mission of the Office of the Science & Technology Adviser is "to serve the U.S. national interest by promoting global scientific and technological progress as integral components of U.S. diplomacy including building partnerships with the national and international scientific communities."

UW-Stevens Point and UW System sent a letter yesterday to the Wisconsin House congressional delegation as it considers H.R. 2584, the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies spending bill.  We asked that our delegation oppose efforts to cut the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units program in the Fiscal Year 2012 bill and speak on the floor in support of the Units program and the benefits – especially the economic benefits – that the Units program provides to states like Wisconsin and the nation.  Wildlife, hunting, tourism, fishing, and fish – where would the Door County fish boil and the Friday night fish fry be without fish?  Wisconsin is home to two Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units programs, one at UW-Stevens Point and one at UW-Madison.

(AAU and the UW System Office of Federal Relations contributed to this report.)