Science Committee Approves Controversial Innovation Bill

2015-04-23T14:42:08+00:00 April 23, 2015|
Cannon House Office Building. (Credit: Architect of the Capitol)

(Click to enlarge) Cannon House Office Building. (Credit: Architect of the Capitol)

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a markup session on the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015 (H.R. 1806).

The legislation, introduced by Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), reauthorizes research programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Chairman Smith’s (R-TX) proposed bill would boost funding for NIST and DOE’s Office of Science. It would increase the budget of specific NSF directorates, including as biology, chemistry, physics, computer sciences, engineering, and mathematics programs, but would reduce that of social, behavioral, and economic sciences (by 45 percent) and geosciences (by 8 percent). The Office of Energy and Renewable Energy and for the Advance Research Projects Agency-Energy would also suffer large budget cuts of 30 and 50 percent, respectively. Ocean Leadership expressed our concerns with the proposed legislation through two letters submitted on behalf of several like-minded science organizations.

While Republican members of the committee praised the bill as “pro-science,” Democrats rejected the bill with Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) describing it as “a tragedy in waiting,” and Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) stating that it more appropriately should be called “The American Concedes Act.” Democrats largely criticized the bill’s “flat” funding levels, “antagonistic” and distrustful language towards NSF and the nation’s scientists, as well as the use of political language to influence the direction of scientific work. Democrats also heavily criticized the bill’s approach of specifying funding at the NSF directorate level, arguing that this would take funding decisions out of the hands of experts. They explained that scientific progress is not rigidly bound by directorates and so organizing budgets in this manner would restrict NSF’s ability to make strategic decisions. Sections directed to scientific misconduct and NSF’s merit-review process further emphasized a recurrent theme of mistrust in the nation’s scientists. Cuts in STEM education programs also raised the ire among several Democrats who argued for a need to invest and support STEM education programs, as well as improve efforts to systematically address women and minority problems in STEM fields.

During consideration, Republicans voted down 25 Democratic amendments, mostly aimed at restoring funding levels for climate science, geosciences and the social, behavioral and economic sciences. The committee also rejected along party lines a Democratic version of the bill, H.R. 1898, introduced by Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX). H.R.1898 would boost spending for DOE’s Office of Sciences, NIST, ARPA-E, and NSF without specifying budgets by directorate; it would cut provisions to revise NSF’s merit-review process and facility oversight; and would add language linking humans activity to climate change.