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In late December, as part of the lame-duck session of Congress, the House of Representatives passed the Senate’s version of the America COMPETES Act, sending it to the President’s desk. It was the second time the House had approved a version of the legislation aimed at strengthening the country’s leadership in scientific research.
The bill is wide-ranging, touching on furthering research and development as well as science and math education. It authorizes funding for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and research programs in the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. It also directs the Department of Commerce to create an Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship to help commercialize new technologies. The bill sets up numerous other federal research and education programs in agencies including the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Academies and the Department of Energy.
The COMPETES Act had a difficult time working its way through the 111th Congress. When it first came to a vote in the House in May, Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) added a so-called “poison pill” amendment to stop the bill. In a surprising parliamentary move, Bart Gordon reintroduced the bill under suspended House rules to avoid any amendments, but fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass it. The bill was then introduced for a third time in the House, and passed 262-150.
After making it through the House, Senate Republicans balked at the reauthorization bill’s initial $85 billion price tag over five years. The Senate passed a version that authorized $45 billion over three years, including $7.4 billion funding for new initiatives. The House voted 228-130 in December, largely along party lines, to adopt the Senate’s version, which was signed into law by the president in early January. Ultimately 16 House Republicans ended up voting for the final bill, including the retiring Vern Ehlers (R-MI), a former nuclear physicist and an APS Fellow.
“Science funding is the engine of a knowledge-based economy. If we remove it, our economy will crash and burn,” said Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), ranking democrat on the House Science and Technology Committee. “If we are to reverse the trend of the last twenty years, during which our country’s technological edge in the world has diminished, we must make the investments necessary today. More than half of our economic growth since World War II can be attributed to development and adoption of new technologies. These investments are the path toward sustainable economic recovery and growth and the path toward prosperity for the next 50 years.”
Members of the Republican leadership emphasized that they do not oppose scientific research and development in principle, but rather they objected to the cost of the bill and the process the Democrats used to pass it in the lame duck session.
“As much as I want to support COMPETES and see NSF, NIST and the DOE Office of Science reauthorized, I simply cannot support this version. This measure continues to be far too expensive, particularly in light of the new and duplicative programs it creates. Further, we have not had the opportunity to give proper oversight to the programs we put in motion in the first COMPETES before authorizing new, additional programs. And, unfortunately, this bill still goes way beyond the goals and direction of the original America COMPETES, taking us from good, solid fundamental research and much too far into the world of commercialization, which many of us on this side of the aisle do not believe is the proper role of the federal government,” said Ralph Hall (R-Texas), incoming chair of the House Science and Technology Committee in the 112th Congress.
Despite opposition to the bill in Congress, business groups, education organizations and science societies lined up to support the bill. Organizations that promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics education were strong supporters of its passage.
“The significance is that funding is being provided for teacher training and for us that is a really big thing,” said Beth Cunningham, Executive Officer of the American Association of Physics Teachers. “Overall, I think the bill is good for us, it’s good for the US and it’s good for AAPT.”
Before its passage, APS joined over 750 different organizations in publicly endorsing the bill. These included the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Council on Education.
“The reason the COMPETES Act passed in my judgment, the reason it passed in the Senate in particular, was that the science community got behind it. There were a lot of people, a lot of members of APS, who weighed in on the thing, most recently at the plasma physics meeting. And people should understand that they do have influence, because without the work the individual scientists did on this issue, it probably would not have not have passed in the Senate, and never would have made its way back to the House,” said Michael Lubell, director of Public Affairs at APS.
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Editor: Alan Chodos