On 22 April, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee passed a bill along party lines that would reauthorize funding for three federal programs that support basic research. The passage came after lengthy debate of 25 amendments.
“The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act” is sponsored by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science Committee. HR 1806 would set new two-year funding goals for the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy research programs, and National Institute of Standards and Technology labs, as well as make policy changes within these programs.
Many of the amendments would have removed the most contentious provisions of the bill. Democrats unsuccessfully offered amendments to remove funding specifications for NSF’s research directorates and to increase authorization levels for NSF education programs and operations.
Representative Paul Tonko (D-NY) commented that the bill should be called the “America Concedes Act” instead of the “America COMPETES Act” because the bill would cede the United States’ global leadership in science and technology. Another member, Representative Eric Swalwell (D-CA) offered the alternate title “America Retreats Act.”
Chairman Smith responded that the legislation supports investments in areas of basic research that advance economic competitiveness. Smith justified the funding levels as necessary to stay within the budget caps mandated by federal law. Members of the minority party responded that the Budget Control Act does not specify cuts to particular federal programs. Representative Donna Edwards (D-MD) said the problem with sequestration is that it is a “sledgehammer, not a surgical knife.”
HR 1806 proposes an authorization level of $7.6 billion for NSF in fiscal years (FY) 2016 and 2017, which is $253 million higher than the agency’s current funding level, but lower than President Obama’s budget request for FY 2016. The bill also specifies funding levels for each of NSF’s directorates. For many years, Congress has not specified this level of detail in NSF’s budget. If enacted, the reauthorization bill would benefit certain research areas—biology, computer science, engineering, and math and physical sciences—at the expense of the social sciences and geosciences.
In addition to the provisions debated during the committee markup, the legislation would make a number of changes to NSF policies. Research funded by NSF would have to be “in the national interest” and public announcement of each award would have to include a written justification. NSF would have to establish new procedures to ensure that research grants do not duplicate science funded by other federal agencies and that the principal investigators who receive multiple awards have sufficient resources to conduct the work. NSF would also have to justify the additional expenses of hiring rotating personnel. Additionally, new restrictions on the use of management fees for large facilities would be implemented.