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Congress surprises science community by passing research bill

With last minute push, Congress clears new version of America Competes Act

by Andrea Widener
December 20, 2016

Credit: U.S. House of Representatives
Rep. Lamar Smith, chair of the House Science, Space, & Technology Committee
U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith
Credit: U.S. House of Representatives
Rep. Lamar Smith, chair of the House Science, Space, & Technology Committee

A research bill that science advocates thought had died when Congress left for the holidays was unexpectedly revived on Dec. 16 when the House of Representatives passed it by unanimous consent in absentia.

The American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (S. 3084) is the newest iteration of the America Competes Act, which expired in 2013. The Senate passed the legislation earlier this month, and President Barack Obama is expected to sign it.

The original America Competes law enacted in 2007 was designed to help the U.S. remain competitive by doubling funding for research at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards & Technology. It also expanded support for science and math education. However, budget battles meant that few of those increases ever materialized.

The new bill does not set specific financial goals for funding, given the likely tight budget climate expected under President Donald Trump and a Republican Congress. But it does resolve some controversies that had prevented its passage earlier.

The most debated provision was over language championed by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology committee. Smith wanted NSF’s director to personally affirm that each grant the agency funded was in the national interest. The agency and the provision’s critics said that would have interfered with NSF’s peer review process.

S. 3084 does include the national interest standard, but as part of the agency’s already established broader impacts criteria required for each grant. Many of the other issues between Smith and NSF already had been resolved, such as including a more lay-friendly description of the impact of each grant on the agency’s website.

In addition to those criteria, S. 3084 creates a line item for NSF’s I-Corps, which is expected to give the science start-up program more stable funding. It also creates a working group to reduce administrative burdens on researchers.

Anthony Pitagno, director of advocacy for the American Chemical Society, says the scientific organization is especially happy to see language in the bill that supports coordination of sustainable chemistry research programs across federal agencies.

“This was a case in which a legislative process that carefully balanced competing interests and took into account the input provided by the university community was rewarded with enactment of good legislation,” says chemist Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities.

History Of America Competes

Three years after it expired, a renewed version of the America Competes Act has passed in Congress and is expected to be signed by the President. Here is a brief history of the law.

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.

December 2016

At the last minute, Congress passed the newest version of America Competes, the American Innovation and Competiveness Act (S. 3084).

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



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