The US modernizes its energy policy and gives an overall boost to federal research funding in a jam-packed year-end budget deal to fund most of the federal government. The deal provides a total of $1.4 trillion for fiscal 2021, along with a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package. Total R&D funding for 2021 amounts to $165 billion, an increase of less than 1% over 2020, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Congress passed the legislation late Dec. 21, once again bypassing steep cuts and program eliminations proposed by President Donald J. Trump. Trump signed the bill into law Dec. 27.
The chemical industry’s main lobbying group, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), welcomes the sweeping changes to energy policy. “The Energy Act of 2020 wisely covers a broad set of energy sources—including efficiency, renewables, nuclear, and key fossil technologies,” the ACC says in a statement. “Chemistry-based products and technologies support the fight against climate change through renewable energy solutions, electric and high-efficiency vehicles, energy-saving building materials, and a variety of other applications.”
The updated energy policy also fits with President-Elect Joe Biden’s priorities, one of which is addressing climate change.
Many provisions in the budget aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, they direct the Department of Energy to develop a project to capture carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and to either sequester it or use it as a raw material for manufacturing. The department must identify and evaluate novel uses for captured carbon dioxide in the production of chemicals, plastics, building materials, and fuels.
Other provisions address energy storage, advanced nuclear energy, renewable energy, nuclear fusion, smart manufacturing, and modernization of the electrical grid. The budget also reauthorizes the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E), a research incubator that supports high-risk, high-potential projects that aren’t likely to attract private funding. Trump proposed eliminating ARPA-E throughout his presidency.
The measure also requires that the US cut emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), synthetic chemicals that are potent greenhouse gases. HFCs are used as refrigerants in some automobile air conditioners and refrigeration equipment. The appropriations law directs the Environmental Protection Agency to ratchet down US production and use of HFCs to 15% of their 2011–13 average annual levels by 2036.
Two senators from states with a large chemical industry presence—Republican John Kennedy of Louisiana and Democrat Tom Carper of Delaware—pushed the HFC phasedown for years. In September, they broke through a legislative deadlock, crafting language with the Committee on Environment and Public Works’ chair, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), to deem certain uses of HFCs as essential and excluded from the phasedown. Essential uses listed in the law include propellants for pepper sprays used by law enforcement officers and solvents in semiconductor manufacturing.
But for other uses, replacements for HFCs are already on the market, and those chemicals have far lower or no potential to cause global warming. The ACC says that in addition to curbing greenhouse gas emissions, the new HFC requirements will expand the US share of the global market for air-conditioning and refrigeration products.
The budget also includes almost $300 million in new funding to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy nonprofit.
Most of this funding goes to the Department of Defense to clean up PFAS contamination at active and closed military installations, to phase out these compounds from firefighting foams, and to advance R&D on remediating and disposing of PFAS. Additionally, it requires the Food and Drug Administration to review the safety of PFAS used in food packaging.
Congress allocates a $1.250 billion increase to the National Institutes of Health, bringing its budget to $42.941 billion. Programs slated for the largest percentage increases include the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. The budget also directs the NIH to provide $5 million to its inspector general’s office to investigate ties between US researchers and China and deliver quarterly reports on its progress to congressional committees.
The National Science Foundation gets a $208 million boost to $8.487 billion. Of that total, $6.910 billion goes to research and related activities, while $241 million is for major equipment and facilities. Funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science barely changes, with a $26 million increase to $7.026 billion. For both the NSF and DOE, Congress emphasized quantum science and machine learning. The NSF’s Innovation Corps program, which trains academics on entrepreneurship, and EPSCoR, which improves science capacity in states and local jurisdictions, both get increases.
The US Department of Agriculture’s competitive extramural grants program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, receives $435 million, an increase of $10 million compared with fiscal 2020. Funding priorities include research to stem crop diseases, combat antimicrobial resistance, increase food production, and improve food safety and water quality.
“We are pleased to see Congress pass a long-overdue full-year appropriations package that will provide federal research agencies much-needed funding predictability after an incredibly challenging year,” Lauren Brookmeyer, president of a nonprofit organization of research universities called the Science Coalition, says in a statement.
Additionally, the appropriations law extends hemp growers’ ability to operate under state pilot programs from Sept. 30, 2021, to Jan. 1, 2022. The extension gives the USDA time to address concerns about its current requirements around sampling and testing protocols intended to ensure that hemp contains no more than 0.3% of the psychoactive compound ∆9-tetrahydrocannabinol on a dry-weight basis.
The FDA is allocated $5 million to develop a regulatory framework for cannabidiol (CBD) and other cannabis-derived compounds. The agency is directed to issue, “in a timely manner,” guidance on how it will employ enforcement discretion around CBD products, including dietary supplements and food, but Congress did not give the agency a deadline. The FDA is also encouraged to collaborate with an academic institution to test the safety of CBD products being sold throughout the US.
The FDA receives $5 million to modernize influenza vaccines, $1 million to boost the safety of cosmetics, and $1 million to monitor antimicrobial resistance.
The American COMPETE Act also made it into the final budget. That bill requires the Department of Commerce and the Federal Trade Commission to study within 1 year the safety of several emerging technologies and their impact on the US economy. The technologies include artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, quantum computing, digital ledgers for authentication and supply chain management called blockchain, advanced materials, unstaffed delivery services, and 3-D printing.
The US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board received support, despite Trump’s repeated proposal to eliminate it. However, the board’s funding remains flat at $12 million.
Congress also helped itself by allocating to its investigational arm, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), $661 million, an increase of $31 million compared with fiscal 2020. The extra money is intended to boost the GAO’s Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team. Established in 2019, the group provides analyses of emerging science and technologies, such as artificial intelligence and gene editing, for Congress.
The $900 billion COVID-19 relief package that was attached to the appropriations deal provides various forms of economic relief along with funding for public health measures, including vaccine purchase and distribution and COVID-19 testing programs.
The COVID-19 package also includes $23 billion for higher education—an amount far below the $120 billion that higher education groups hoped for “to support the nation’s colleges and universities as they manage massive losses and expenses and address the substantially increased needs of students,” Association of Public and Land-grant Universities president Peter McPherson says in a statement.
“Researchers and labs across the country desperately need emergency support to address the substantial expenses and losses related to the global pandemic. The costs include personal protective equipment, increased equipment costs due to supply shortages, lab infrastructure changes to address public health spacing requirements, and biological sample and other lab material replacement,” McPherson says.
A version of this story posted on Dec. 24, 2020. It was updated on Dec. 31, 2020, after the budget legislation was signed into law by President Donald J. Trump, to incorporate additional information and other revisions for clarity.
This story was updated on Dec. 31, 2020, to correct the amount of the COVID-19 relief package in the first paragraph from $900 million to $900 billion.