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Controversy Over America Competes

A divided Congress wrestles with reauthorization Law to bolster U.S. science competitiveness

by Andrea Widener
December 2, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 48

History Of The Law

Following nearly a decade of momentum, the future of the America Competes Act is unclear.

October 2005 National Research Council report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” is released. The report expresses concern that the U.S. is losing its innovation edge and recommends Congress take action to reverse this trend.

August 2007 President George W. Bush signs the America Competes Act into law. The measure authorizes the doubling of R&D budgets for DOE Office of Science, NIST, and NSF over a decade and emphasizes STEM education support and coordination.

January 2011 President Barack Obama signs into law the reauthorization of America Competes. The reauthorized law continues the budget doubling for the three key science agencies, but it extends the period for the increases to occur.

June 2012 NRC publishes a follow-on report, “Research Universities and the Future of America,” that finds U.S. competitiveness continuing to decline.

October 2013 The 2010 America Competes reauthorization expires.

DOE = Department of Energy. NIST = National Institute of Standards & Technology. NSF = National Science Foundation. STEM = science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Fear that the U.S. is losing its competitive edge internationally has long fueled congressional support for science and technology research and education.

In 2007, that concern led to the bipartisan America Competes Act. The law, now expired, aimed to enhance the nation’s science and technology edge through investments in several major research agencies and science education programs. Today, the bipartisan support for the law has been replaced by a polarized political environment, as evidenced by the competing draft reauthorization bills being discussed in the House of Representatives.

House Democrats are proposing few changes to the law, while Republicans want big changes aimed at cutting costs and tightening control over research investments.

“What we’re seeing is this laudable goal and vision for spurring innovation hitting the wall of fiscal reality,” says Joanne Carney, the director of government relations for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

America Competes, which required reauthorization every three years, set a lofty goal of doubling funding for physical science and engineering research at three key federal agencies: the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards & Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. It also expanded science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education programs to strengthen the workforce. The bill was passed in 2007 and reauthorized in 2010 with bipartisan support.

But tight budgets have meant that some goals such as doubling agency budgets have been abandoned. Congress is assessing the expired law to determine what changes are needed.

House Republicans propose splitting America Competes into two separate bills, neither of which would include budget targets. One draft bill would focus strictly on DOE’s Office of Science and give Congress more control over program cuts.

A second draft bill that would cover NSF and NIST is more controversial. Its most debated provision would add layers to NSF’s vaunted peer review system. Under the draft bill, NSF’s director would be required to personally affirm that each of the agency’s 11,000-plus grants meets one of six criteria, such as promoting increased economic competitiveness or advancement of the health and welfare of the American public.

But no one person could personally affirm so many research funding grants each year, critics argue. “This provision could actually act against the committee’s aims by adding a meaningless level of rubber stamping to the grant approval process,” Daniel Sarewitz, a professor of science and society at Arizona State University, said in testimony to the House Committee on Science, Space & Technology last month.

The draft bill would also require NSF to publish a written justification for the funding of each grant awarded along with the name of the agency employee who made the decision before the grants are made. Observers note that this could have a chilling effect on the willingness of scientists and NSF employees to participate in the peer review process.

Another area of concern for many in the community is language that may end up adding restrictions on open access to research. The draft bill would allow research papers to stay behind a paywall for up to three years, far longer than current, widely supported National Institutes of Health guidelines. It would also create a new process for agencies to develop open access, which open access proponents say would repeat previous work on this front and would delay implementation of widespread open access.

The draft bill would also give Congress much more oversight of—and the ability to cut—individual programs.

Absent from the draft bills, however, are specific budget targets for any federal agency. Lofty financial goals similar to those found in the original law were not expected to come out of the newest reauthorization process, but the inclusion of at least some congressionally approved targets could provide much-needed direction to agencies.

“We remain concerned that excessive fluctuations in year-to-year research budgets can negatively impact many aspects of scientific research,” Anthony Pitagno, director of advocacy for the American Chemical Society, wrote in a letter to the House science committee. “We encourage you to establish a long-term research funding blueprint between Congress and the White House.”

Because the bills are still in draft form, many in the science community are meeting with committee staff and sending in comments about the proposals.



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