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By Michael Lucibella
The reauthorization bill for some of the country's top science programs is facing an uphill battle in Congress. The America COMPETES Act, which authorizes funding for most of the country's fundamental research agencies, is up for renewal, but the atmosphere of bipartisan cooperation that backed it in past years is largely gone.
Several drafts of legislation have been released by House and Senate committees, and there are some dramatic differences among them. In the current fractious political climate in Congress, reconciling the disparate bills will likely prove difficult.
"I don't think there are going to be any authorization bills," said Michael Lubell, Director of Public Affairs at APS. "Given the way the Congress functions these days, I don't see the House and Senate coming to an agreement on this."
The COMPETES bill authorizes spending for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Department of Energy's Office of Science [of these, OSTP is not a funding agency and does not conduct research on its own]. The original intent of the act, when it was first passed in 2007, was to double the federal government's research funding over seven years. When it was reauthorized in 2010, the timeline had slipped, with funding slated to double by 2017. This timeline is likely to continue to slip as Congress considers a new authorization.
As APS News goes to press, the House Democrats have released a discussion draft bill that aims to finish doubling the R&D budget by 2022. This makes for a gradual increase, one that is just above the projected rate of inflation.
"The Democrats' plan, ambitious though it might be, is just enough to keep treading water," said Matt Hourihan, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at AAAS. "If we fall short of those Democratic targets, it's pretty much assured that the three agencies in question will decline as a share of the economy."
House Republicans, however, have indicated that they plan on breaking the COMPETES act into two parts. The FIRST Act reauthorizes the NSF, NIST, OSTP and other smaller STEM programs, while the EINSTEIN America Act increases the Department of Energy's Office of Science funding by about 1.7 percent over current levels, but eliminates ARPA-E in the process. The draft for FIRST does not include funding levels.
"We could be waiting a while for the House Republican plan," Hourihan said. "The Senate seems much more supportive of establishing a clear doubling trajectory."
Though at the time of publication no full draft has been circulated, the Senate has shown little interest in splitting the bills. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee held a hearing for a single overarching bill on November 6.
"The Senate has pretty much marched along doing the same thing, not really much of a change," Lubell said.
There are hints that the Senate might be more bipartisan and more ambitious than the House. A proposal authorizing the Department of Energy's science budget was released in mid-November with funding increases greater than the House Democrats' draft. Written by Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Christopher Coons (D-DE), the proposal would boost the DOE's science budget from its current level of $4.6 billion to $6.9 billion by 2018. The House Democrats' language would increase funding only to $6.3 billion.
Though the House Republican draft of the FIRST act does not include funding amounts, it does include several controversial sections. The most provocative of these are changes to the NSF's merit review process requiring the identification of grant reviewers. The new rules would involve a written statement about how each funded grant meets at least one of six criteria to benefit the United States, along with the names of the people in charge of approving it.
"If this ever happened, it would be a cataclysmic change in the way the federal government conducts science," Lubell said.
At a hearing on the bill on November 13, Republicans defended the requirements as necessary for better accountability.
"Congress has the responsibility to work with the NSF and National Science Board to ensure that these taxpayer dollars focus on high priority research," said Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN). "The proposed legislation improves the transparency of taxpayer funded research by making more info available to the public about awarded grants and how they promote the national interest."
Democrats at the hearing generally opposed the bill's language on the NSF's merit review.
"While some of my colleagues may believe that these provisions merely increase accountability and transparency in the use of federal resources…I fear that the criteria used in the bill are vague and the process is unnecessarily burdensome," said Daniel Lipinski (D-IL). He added also that the language would likely add uncertainty and possibly even "fundamentally alter" how merit review is carried out.
The provisions are similar to the controversial "High Quality Research Act" that was circulated earlier this year. Though never introduced in the House, the draft legislation was sharply criticized by scientists and research advocates. Whether the provisions will make it to the floor is unclear, and Bucshon said several times that the proposed bill was a "discussion draft."
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