APS News

July 2016 (Volume 25, Number 7)

Senate Introduces Science Research Legislation

By Sophia Chen

This June, the Senate introduced a bill regulating science research for several federal agencies. The bill, called the America Innovation and Competitiveness Act (S. 3084), will establish policy governing the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology and includes a 4 percent increase in authorized funding for both agencies between FY2017 and FY2018. (These funding levels do not reflect actual dollars appropriated to the agencies; they are aspirational guides for agencies’ budgets.) Last month, Michael Lubell, the APS director of public affairs, spoke to APS News about the bill before its official release. While Lubell’s comments apply to the June 15 working version of the bill, APS News has verified that his comments are applicable to the bill amended by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on June 28.

The Senate’s bill marks a return to bipartisan collaboration in research policy after a polarized two-year battle over the bill’s House counterpart, the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act (H.R. 1806). Since last summer, Senators Gary Peters (D-MI) and Cory Gardner (R-CO), two freshmen senators on the Senate committee, have worked together to gather input for the bill from researchers, academic officials, and industry leaders. In interviews with ScienceInsider, both senators said they support federal funding of science research.

Last fall, APS staff participated in a working group organized by the senators and provided feedback on a recent draft of the bill, Lubell says. “[The Senate committee] has been very thoughtful in this process,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that I necessarily agree with everything in the draft, but they’ve come up with a mostly reasonable bill.”

Lubell says that APS has expressed its support of certain provisions in the bill. In particular, APS supports merit-based peer review and the need to minimize agencies’ administrative burden. APS also supports a section of the bill that pivots attention to NSF’s mid-scale projects that range from $3 million to $40 million. (Examples of current mid-scale projects include the construction of university radio telescope observatories and data management for dark energy observations.) Lubell says that NSF doesn’t have a good strategy for managing these projects.

However, some parts of the draft are “problematic,” says Lubell. The bill would create additional oversight of high energy physics research, beyond that currently provided by the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel in the Department of Energy. Although this committee “works quite well” according to Lubell, the bill creates another oversight subcommittee run by the National Science and Technology Council, a high-level interagency committee, whose members include the directors of NSF and the National Institutes of Health. “It’s not at all clear what this panel would do because it’s at too high a level,” Lubell says.

Furthermore, the bill makes NSF responsible for a portion of the contingency funds of large-scale research projects, instead of leaving it to project managers. “It wouldn’t damage the projects, but it creates more red tape,” Lubell says. “If you’re a project manager, you would have to justify to NSF the need for contingency funds.” Lubell says that this provision is in response to NSF’s reported mismanagement of the $433 million National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), a project for monitoring long-term ecological changes on a continental scale, which Congress approved for construction in 2011. After discovering that NEON was projected to overrun its budget by $80 million, NSF fired its contractor in December last year.

The bill is a long-awaited renewal of the original COMPETES law, which was passed in 2007 to keep the U.S. a global leader in science. The law contained several provisions that expanded government-funded science research, such as one that set goals to double the NSF’s budget within a few years (it did not come close to happening). The original COMPETES act received bipartisan support from both the Bush administration and Congressional Democrats and was renewed once, in 2010.

However, when the law expired in 2012, Congressional Republicans had begun to withdraw support for several of its provisions. (Programs authorized by the law could continue unchanged.) The debate in the House over the law’s renewal grew increasingly vitriolic, with Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the House committee chair, calling for stricter oversight of government agencies and instructing his staff to investigate review documents from NSF-funded studies.

Smith’s detractors accused him of substituting peer review with political review, because he targeted climate and social science studies. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the highest ranking Democrat on the committee, accused Smith in a letter of attacking these research fields “because the Chairman personally does not believe them to be of high value.” The two parties disagreed so vehemently over the bill that the minority Democrats in the committee drafted their own legislation independently from the Republicans. This kind of partisanship was previously “unheard of,” Lubell says, because the two parties have typically worked together on science bills.

The House finally passed its bill last May. The research community widely criticized the final version for being too restrictive. In particular, the bill included a contentious section that requires NSF-funded research to serve the “national interest,” as defined by seven specific criteria, which include improving the economy, increasing partnerships with industry, and developing the scientific workforce.

Compared to the House, the Senate’s bill looks much friendlier to researchers — but even if the Senate passes it, it will be difficult to predict how the two houses will reconcile their bills, especially in an election year. Lubell suspects that if both houses do get their acts together, the final version will be significantly watered down. “The House and Senate really don’t see eye to eye on this bill,” he says. “You’re looking at something that will be very difficult to [send to] conference and come out with anything reasonable that the president would sign. Therefore, I don’t consider the bill as a really signature piece of legislation this time around.”

Sophia Chen is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Arizona.

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