Senate Committee Approves COMPETES Successor In Support Of Science

2016-07-01T13:40:09+00:00 July 1, 2016|
Senator Cory Gardner (CO) (Credit: United States Congress)

(Click to enlarge) Senator Cory Gardner (CO) (Credit: United States Congress)

American inventor Thomas Edison declared, “If we all did the things we are really capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves …” Since Edison’s time, scientists and innovators have indeed been pushing the limits of the known word, traveling to the moon and the depths of the ocean’s Mariana Trench, eradicating diseases, and instantaneously communicating around the world. American innovation, research, science, and technology are among our nation’s most important assets and exports. Members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation showed that they, too, value these ideals when they approved S. 3084, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act.

The bipartisan bill was introduced by Senators Cory Gardner (CO) and Gary Peters (MI) and was cosponsored by committee leadership, Chairman John Thune (SD) and Ranking Member Bill Nelson (FL). The importance of this bill cannot be understated — it lays out the policy directives for our nation’s scientific enterprise; establishes federal research and development priorities; and authorizes our nation’s major science-mission agency, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and others (the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)).

S. 3084 is the Senate’s successor to the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology Education and Science Act of 2007 (COMPETES), which authorized federal investment in science; early-stage technology research and development; and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. COMPETES was reauthorized in 2010 and is now past due for reauthorization. The House narrowly passed its reauthorizing bill, the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015 (H.R. 1806) last year; all Democrats and 23 Republicans voted against final passage. The bill was criticized by scientists for its directorate level funding requirements and prioritization of certain scientific disciplines, as well as the politicization of the federal grantmaking selection process.

Sens. Gardner and Peters, along with Chairman Thune and Ranking Member Nelson, put extraordinary effort into making the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act a bipartisan bill that includes input from the scientific community. Over the past year, the committee’s Innovation and Competitiveness Working Group, led by Sens. Gardner and Peters, held a series of bipartisan round table discussions with stakeholders, including research universities, government advisory bodies, and non-governmental organizations, to discuss priorities for the bill. There has been a strong push from committee members and scientific researchers alike to increase U.S. competitiveness in the global research and development sphere and to fund basic research and STEM education, but there was a partisan divide on investment levels and strategies. At a hearing earlier this year, Dr. Kelvin K. Droegemeier (Vice Chair, National Science Board) said the committee’s work toward reauthorizing COMPETES “made science bipartisan again, countering rhetoric that has, at times, made the research community feel under siege.” What resulted from this effort was a bipartisan piece of legislation, with input from the scientific community, that reaffirms the U.S. commitment to the basics of our nation’s gold-standard science process – intellectual merit-based review and peer review – while paving the way for future science by broadening the participation in STEM education and professions and incorporating novel staffing and funding methods, such as citizen science initiatives and prize competitions. Numerous scientific organizations have submitted letters of support for the record, including one cosigned by the Consortium for Ocean Leadership and the National Association of Marine Laboratories.

Unlike the House bill, the Senate version does not include directorate level funding for NSF, does not preferentially advance some scientific disciplines, nor does it require that projects selected for federal support are in the “national interest.” The bill would continue support for successful components of our federal science program (e.g., Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research), outline clear federal policy (e.g., scientific conferences), address the administrative burden on researchers (e.g., working group on research regulation), clarify expectations and processes for partners (e.g., large facilities management), and seek to expand the demographics of STEM (e.g., broadening participation and inclusion). Sen. Gardner expanded on S. 3084’s impacts on scientists, explaining, “The bill also works to reduce regulatory burdens on researchers, some of whom spend up to 40 percent of their grant’s time completing administrative duties.” The American Innovation and Competitiveness Act is “maximizing our federal investment in basic research, encouraging more robust participation in STEM fields, creating more avenues for commercialization, and supporting our nation’s small- and medium-sized manufactures,” affirmed Sen. Peters.

When first introduced last week, the bill did not have any authorization of appropriations, but funding levels were added into the substitute amendment passed by the committee. S. 3084 approximately aligns with levels passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee for NSF and NIST funding for Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 and authorizes a four percent increase for both agencies in FY 2018. Specifically, the bill authorizes $7.51 billion to NSF for FY 2017 and $7.81 billion in FY 2018; it funds NIST at $974 million in FY 2017 and $1.01 billion in FY 2018. The single dissenter at the markup, Senator Deb Fischer (NE) is “concerned that the bill contains substantial increases in the authorization of appropriations for NSF and NIST… and it does not contain corresponding offsets for that spending.” Other committee members disagreed, with Sen. Peters describing the increases as a “modest investment in science” and a “down payment on … American competitiveness going forward.”

Fourteen amendments were approved during the markup, including several with relevance to the wider ocean sciences community. Senator Ed Markey (MA) explained that his amendment “authorizes NSF to support large-scale, cross directorate, informal STEM education partnerships.” The legislation returns informal education to NSF’s portfolio, allowing our nation’s preeminent science agency to also link into education in a variety of informal ways, such as through merit-reviewed grants to support national partnerships of institutions involved in informal STEM education. An amendment from Senator Cory Booker (NJ) supports inclusion in STEM education programs by specifying “economic minorities” be considered, along with other underserved populations, for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Science Education Programs. Senator Brian Schatz (HI) also added a STEM-related amendment supporting apprenticeships and job training within the sciences. Increasing transparency of subgrant recipients and selection processes at NSF was proposed by Senator Steve Daines (MT). Senator Amy Klobuchar (MN)’s amendment decreases administrative burdens on federal research by increasing the procurement solicitation threshold to $10,000.

Chairman Thune lent his support for the bill, noting that it addresses the “basic needs that we have for research in this country.” The extended, thoughtful, and inclusive preparation and drafting of this bill were evident in the broad, bipartisan support it received. The bill’s authors remain optimistic about its continued progress through Congress, with Sen. Gardner expressing, “My hope is that this bill helps reset how Congress approaches science policy.” The Consortium for Ocean Leadership agrees and hopes that Congress will continue strengthening this bill as it continues down the road towards becoming a law.