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Congress surprises science community by passing research bill

New version of America Competes Act on Obama’s desk

by Andrea Widener
December 28, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 1

A research bill that science advocates thought had died was unexpectedly revived in mid-December when the House of Representatives passed it.

The move, which followed Senate passage earlier in December, sent the legislation to President Barack Obama. He is expected to sign the American Innovation & Competitiveness Act (S. 3084). It is the newest iteration of the America Competes Act, which expired in 2013.

The new bill does not set specific financial goals for funding.

The original America Competes law, enacted in 2007, was designed to help the U.S. remain globally competitive by doubling funding for research at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s 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.

The most debated provision was over language championed by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chair of the House Science, Space & Technology Committee. Smith wanted NSF’s director to 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 includes the national interest standard, but as part of the agency’s already-established broader impacts criteria required for each grant.

In addition, the legislation creates a budget 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.



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