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Science Funding's Future

Congress is unlikely to reauthorize the America Competes Act this year

by David Pittman
September 20, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 38

Credit: Gail Porter/NIST
A chemist prepares samples to be analyzed in a lab at NIST, one of three federal science agencies that would benefit from extension of the America Competes Act, which expires on Sept. 30.
Credit: Gail Porter/NIST
A chemist prepares samples to be analyzed in a lab at NIST, one of three federal science agencies that would benefit from extension of the America Competes Act, which expires on Sept. 30.

Congress has little time left to extend the America Competes Act for an additional three years before the current law expires on Sept. 30. Originally passed in 2007, the law seeks to double over 10 years the research budgets of three federal science agencies: the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards & Technology.

Legislation now in Congress to extend the law would create new research programs at the three agencies and reorganize some old ones. It would also increase support for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. But the legislation’s timely passage is not ensured. Failure to extend the America Competes Act this year, however, is not expected to have immediate negative implications for science and technology funding, but supporters of the law say failing to invest in research today could leave a void in tomorrow’s science and technology development.

Lawmakers first passed the America Competes Act in response to the National Academy of Sciences’ study “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.” The report struck a chord with many in Congress with its strong call for increased federal investment in research to keep the U.S. economically competitive for the long term in the international marketplace.

The House of Representatives passed legislation extending the expiring law by a vote of 262–150 on May 28, after twice falling short because of difficult amendments (C&EN, June 7, page 9). The House bill (H.R. 5116) authorizes the spending of $86 billion for the three agencies during the next five years. The Senate version of the bill (S. 3605) cleared the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee on July 22 and is now awaiting a vote by the full Senate.

Despite the limited time left in this year’s legislative session, staffers for key senators, including the chair of the Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee, tell C&EN that they are “optimistic” and “hopeful” that the reauthorization bill will pass before the end of the year.

Others are not so confident. “Right now in the current spending environment, it’s a long shot to get it passed by the Senate this year,” says James Brown, assistant director for advocacy in the Office of Public Affairs at the American Chemical Society. ACS publishes C&EN.

“Science and technology have driven our economy for many years,” says Matthew A. Tarr, chair of the chemistry department at the University of New Orleans and chair of the Research Investment Action Network with the Council for Chemical Research. “Failure to invest in these areas, both in dollars and in human resource development, will substantially weaken our ability to compete internationally.”

Passing the legislation would also indicate that Congress is serious about scientific research. “Even in this year’s budget, the Administration has proposed significant increases for science in a budget that’s flat overall,” ACS’s Brown says. “That is a very serious expression of priorities. If the bill isn’t renewed, then gradually that strong, unified set of priorities will have less of an impact on the budgeting process.”

The legislation is not just about money. It includes provisions especially for the chemical enterprise that could die if the bill isn’t passed this year. For instance, H.R. 5116 calls for NSF to create a dedicated “Green Chemistry Basic Research Program.” This program would award competitive grants to support research on clean, safe, and economical alternatives to traditional chemical products and practices. Such a program, which ACS pushed hard for, currently doesn’t exist at NSF. Another provision would require NSF to establish a policy to use at least 5% of the agency’s research budget to fund high-risk, high-reward research proposals.

To foster innovation, the legislation reauthorizes DOE’s new high-risk, energy technology development program—the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy—and it would maintain funding for DOE’s collaborative Energy Innovation Hubs.

Credit: View Enarged Image
Credit: View Enarged Image

And to spur commercialization, the legislation directs the Department of Commerce to establish an Office of Innovation & Entrepreneurship and NSF to award grants to colleges to expand partnerships with the private sector to enhance innovation. For STEM education, the legislation establishes an interagency committee to coordinate federal science education programs and activities. It also creates a presidential advisory committee on STEM education to solicit input to improve science education efforts.

However, the greatest impact of the America Competes Act would be in doubling the budgets of NSF, NIST, and DOE’s Office of Science. The House-passed bill calls for the NSF budget to jump to $10.2 billion by 2015, a 48% leap from the $6.9 billion appropriation it received in fiscal 2010. Also under the House’s plan, spending for DOE’s Office of Science would total $6.9 billion by 2015, a 40% percent jump from this year. The NIST budget would increase to $1.2 billion by 2015, a 40% jump from 2010.

However, because the legislation is an authorization bill, it only sets guidelines for future funding levels and does not actually appropriate any money that can be spent by the agencies. Lawmakers will set actual spending levels during negotiations over the three agencies’ 2011 appropriations bills, which are trying to make their way through Congress.

Proponents of increased support for science and technology are concerned that actual appropriations will be much lower, as has been the case for America Competes funding over the past three years. For example, the 2007 law authorized NSF funding to top $8.1 billion in fiscal 2010, but the agency received only $6.9 billion this year.

President Barack Obama did propose large increases in funding for most science agencies in his fiscal 2011 budget proposal last February. And in the few bills getting through appropriations committees so far, Congress seems to be going along with some of the increases.

The President requested and received from the House spending subcommittee $7.4 billion for NSF, a 7.1% increase from its 2010 level. The Senate Appropriations Committee was slightly less generous and approved funding that was $71 million less than requested, but still a 6.2 % increase from this year.

DOE’s Office of Science sought $5.1 billion for 2011, but Congress has been stingy, with the House approving only $4.9 billion, the same amount the agency received in 2010. And for NIST research programs, the President requested $585 million for next year, a 7.1% increase above 2010 funding. So far the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved that amount. The House hasn’t completed its appropriations bill yet.

Before a final new version of the America Competes Act is passed, some major differences in the Senate and House versions would have to be resolved, insiders say. For instance, H.R. 5116 authorizes the agencies for the next five years, but the Senate version calls for only three years. Also, the House version includes authorization for spending by the National Aeronautics & Space Administration, but S. 3605 does not include the space agency because the Senate passed a separate authorization bill for NASA before it left for its August recess. “Anything controversial added to the Senate bill is going to get jettisoned when they bring this to the Senate floor,” Brown says.

Congress, which has just returned from its Labor Day recess, will have little time left this year to extend America Competes while working on other legislation, including the difficult 2011 budget. Even after the November elections, the agenda of the lame-duck Congress still may not include the America Competes authorization, proponents say.

Robert S. Boege, executive director for the Alliance for Science & Technology Research in America, an organization advocating for increased basic research in the physical sciences, says Senate passage of legislation to extend the America Competes Act probably hinges on Democratic leadership scaling back spending levels in the 2010 bill. He says, “Overall, the scientific and engineering community and many other interests that support this measure are hopeful that a spirit of bipartisanship will prevail when Congress decides upon such an important piece of legislation.”


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