While students around the country were recalling organic chemistry processes and physics formulas during their end-of-semester exams last Friday, Congress was also at work. Following in the Senate’s footsteps, the House passed the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (S. 3084), a reauthorization of the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology Education and Science Act of 2007, or America COMPETES, which was last reauthorized in 2010. The 2016 bill outlines policies for the National Science Foundation (NSF); the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST); and other federal science and innovation programs, including science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education programs.
The widely-supported Senate bill passed out of committee in late June after Senators Cory Gardner (CO), Gary Peters (MI), John Thune (SD), and Bill Nelson (FL) spent more than a year working across party lines and considering stakeholder input. However, its House counterpart (H.R. 1806) was much more contentious; 23 Republicans and all Democrats opposed its passage on the House floor. Conferees from both chambers came to agreement on a bill that was more in line with the Senate version; upon its passage, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX-30), Ranking Member of the House Science Committee, stated, “the version of S. 3084 before us today represents what we can achieve when all parties agree to listen to each other, and perhaps more importantly, to the experts in the agencies and the stakeholder communities.”
In the House version of the bill, there was especially strong disagreement surrounding language directing NSF to award grants that serve the “national interest.” However, the Senate version of the bill deemed NSF’s intellectual merit and broader impacts criteria sufficient for grant evaluation and awarding. While the final version does not require grant proposals themselves to be in the “national interest,” the bill states that NSF’s intellectual merit and broader impacts criteria “should be used to assure that the Foundation’s activities are in the national interest.”
Another area of concern from the scientific community in H.R. 1806 was the underfunding of NSF’s Geosciences Directorate, which supports basic research in Earth, ocean, atmospheric, and polar sciences and yields research that benefits our society and economy, such as enhanced exploration of mineral and energy resources and improved hurricane forecasting. Funding cuts for NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate were also met with backlash, as critics urged that social and behavioral research is essential to develop effective science communication skills. However, language reauthorizing funding for federal agencies and programs was not included in the recently-passed bill, as it was in the original COMPETES. Also removed from the conferenced bill was a provision in the House bill instructing NSF to publicly name principal investigators who committed misconduct in their research (critics had argued that all professionals, especially those early in their career, make mistakes, and that public shame would be unnecessary).
The conferenced bill calls for reducing administrative burdens and regulations on researchers that take up large portions of scientists’ valuable time, an issue that has been the subject of several hearings and other bills. The new COMPETES act instructs that an interagency working group be established to explore strategies to reduce this burden and allow researchers to spend more time performing their critical research. The bill supports efforts to expand STEM education programs and the diversity of its participants by establishing a working group to find ways to increase inclusion of women, minorities, and people with disabilities in the sciences and by creating a STEM Education Advisory Panel (consisting of members from academia, industry, and the non-profit sector) to examine how to improve federal STEM programs.
Other provisions in the bill include improving NIST laboratory programs, keeping management of our nation’s Antarctic Research program with NSF, supporting and utilizing citizen science programs, and promoting partnerships between federally-funded research efforts and the private sector. Senator Gardner (CO), one of the bipartisan sponsors of the original bill, offered his support for the final version, stating that the House’s passage of the act is “a major step forward for the science and research community” and that the legislation “has made science bipartisan again.” The bill’s journey through the legislative process ends on the desk of President Obama, who is expected to sign it into law.