Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017 (Public Law 115-31)
What it does
Appropriates Federal Fiscal Year 2017 funding, and includes special provisions related to gene editing, precision medicine, Zika virus, opioids, mental health, and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Public Law 115-31, commonly known as the federal budget, determines funding for government agencies during the Federal Fiscal Year 2017 (FFY; October 2016 to September 2017). Special provisions include:
Genetics / Genomics
- Requires the Director of National Intelligence to develop a plan to “monitor advances in life sciences and biotechnology”, especially genetic editing technologies, and assess the risks and threats of these technologies for both the economy and defense. The plan must be submitted to Congress no later than 180 days after this Act is enacted.
- Appropriates funds to support the National Institutes of Health’s Precision Medicine Initiative (SciPol brief available; program rebranded as the All of Us Research Program).
- Creates new funding for the Food and Drug Administration to respond to emerging health threats, particularly the Zika virus.
- Funds local grants for comprehensive opioid abuse reduction activities, as authorized by the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016 (Public Law 114-198), and for law enforcement agencies to investigate the trafficking and distribution of illegal opioid drugs.
- Funds a national, evidence-based, opioid drug overdose prevention program, as described by the Public Health Service Act (Public Law 78-410; 42 U.S.C. 201 et seq.).
- Funds a Department of Veterans Affairs program for opioid and substance abuse prevention and treatment, as authorized by the Jason Simcakoski Memorial and Promise Act (38 U.S.C. 1701 note).
- Funds various grants, programs, and agencies related to mental health.
Robotics / Artificial Intelligence
- Funds the procurement, operation and maintenance of unmanned aerial vehicles by US Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Transportation.
- Prohibits use of funds to support the transfer of program authority (including research and development and acquisition) from the Army of tactical unmanned aerial vehicles.
- Directs the Army to retain responsibility for MQ–1C Gray Eagle Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, a weaponized drone, to support the Secretary of Defense.
Genetics / Genomics
A cell’s genome, or genetic material, is constructed of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). This DNA encodes an instruction manual that tells the cell how to function and how to interact with other cells in the body. Genetic editing technologies are tools used to precisely change the instructions encoded in the DNA. The tool could be used for a number of purposes, some beneficial to human health and others detrimental. For instance, the application could be used to correct faulty genetic code (mutations) associated with genetic disorders, or it could be used to make a virus more pathogenic. Recent advances, such as the development of CRISPR/Cas9 technology (SciPol brief available), have made genetic editing easier and more broadly accessible.
Precision medicine seeks to consider detailed information about an individual’s genome, lifestyle, and environment to create “personalized” medical care (as opposed to a “one-size-fits-all” approach). Extensive health data collection and sharing will be critical for the development of precision medicine, as researchers need to be able to compare data (genetic and otherwise) from a lot of people, both sick and healthy, to identify the important factors contributing to disease and health. To this end, the Obama Administration initiated the Precision Medicine Initiative (SciPol brief available; program rebranded as the All of Us Research Program to recruit upwards of one million volunteers for a long term study that would be foundational to the precision medicine field.
The Zika virus is contracted primarily through an infected Aedes mosquito bite, but can also be spread through mother to child transmission, sexual transmission, and blood transfusion. The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis (red eyes). Other common symptoms include muscle pain and headache. Infection does not necessarily confer demonstration of symptoms. Zika virus poses an especially dangerous threat to pregnant women, as it is associated with microcephaly, a condition in which a baby’s head and brain are abnormally small and the brain does not properly develop. This can lead to cognitive impairment, vision and hearing problems, seizures, and other brain-related impairments.
Opioids are a class of drugs that bind to opioid receptors in the brain, producing pain-relieving and euphoric effects. Opioids are either derived naturally from the opium poppy plant (e.g., morphine and codeine, commonly referred to as opiates), partially synthesized from opium (e.g., heroin, oxycodone, and hydromorphone), or fully synthesized to mimic the effects of opium (e.g., fentanyl and methadone.) Medically, these drugs are primarily used for their analgesic (i.e., pain-relieving) properties, but are often misused, overprescribed, and abused given their propensity for dependence.
In 2013, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that over 1.8 million people suffer from opioid use disorder. The Center for Disease Control estimates that over 33,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2015 alone; half of those deaths resulted from prescription opioids. Treatment for opioid use disorder comes in many forms, including residential or inpatient addiction treatment, counseling and behavioral therapy; and medication-assisted treatment.
Robotics / AI
In the US Army, an unmanned aerial system (UAS) includes the unmanned aircraft (or UAV), the payload (e.g., surveillance equipment, communications relays, cargo, weapons), human support (e.g., operators, supervisors, maintenance), controls, displays, communications hardware, logistic support, and supported Soldiers. Presently, a majority of surveillance operations are already conducted by UAVs. It is important to note, however, that the UAV is controlled at all times by a human operator at a remote terminal, and is only “unmanned” in the sense that there is no crew onboard.
The Act refers specifically to tactical unmanned aerial vehicles (TUAVs). TUAVs are intended to serve as the primary reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition, and battle damage assessment system for troops on the ground, ranging from battalion to division-level. One of the most broadly used TUAVs is the RQ-7 Shadow. Other UAVs may perform operations that are not necessarily in direct support of troops on the ground (e.g., intelligence missions).
The MQ–1C Gray Eagle is a version of the Air Force’s Predator UAV, modified for the Army. Unlike the Shadow, which is used for reconnaissance, the Gray Eagle is additionally capable of carrying four AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, which can hit ground targets at a distance of up to 5 miles.
The Department of Defense (DoD) has made efforts to increase the number of unmanned systems in the United States Army to reduce the risk to soldiers and improve success in routine missions. In particular, UAVs used for information, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions are the most widely produced type, with production numbers far beyond other types, including radar decoys and target drones. Production numbers are also expected to increase in the future. This increase in the number of platforms will require a corresponding increase in qualified operators and resources to support future operations.
UAVs have many other civil and commercial applications including aerial policing, crowd monitoring, and crop dusting. Drones are expected to become more pervasive with use by moviemakers, local governments, and logistics and shipping companies.