After making revisions to gain Democratic support, the House Science Committee unanimously passed a package of education and competitiveness bills, by voice vote, on June 7. The "Science and Mathematics Education For Competitiveness" Act (H.R. 5358), would enhance science and math education programs, primarily at NSF, while the "Research for Competitiveness" Act (H.R. 5356) would combine two prior committee bills (H.R. 5356 and H.R. 5357) authorizing early career awards and fund-matching awards for young scientists and engineers.
While the bills were originally introduced with only Republican sponsorship, enough changes were made to satisfy Science Committee Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN), who signed on as a cosponsor on the latest round. In a press release, Gordon thanked Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and other committee members for working with him to combine provisions from Gordon's own education and competitiveness legislation with the majority's bills, and to bring "the scope and funding levels authorized" closer to the recommendations of the National Academies' report on competitiveness, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." Gordon also joined with Boehlert (R-NY) in a letter to House appropriators, urging support for the programs and authorization levels in the committee's bills.
Provisions of the Science Committee bills as originally introduced can be found at http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/065.html. Changes made to attract Democratic support and enable unanimous committee passage of the bills include the following:
H.R. 5358: THE SCIENCE AND MATHEMATICS EDUCATION FOR COMPETITIVENESS ACT:
Language on the Robert Noyce scholarship program, which provides scholarships to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) undergraduates who commit to teaching after graduation, is now more specific about the programs that recipient universities must provide to students, including field teaching experience. Authorization levels in the latter years of the bill (FY 2010 and FY 2011) would be increased from $90 million per year to $110 million and $130 million, respectively.
NSF's Mathematics and Science Partnership program would be renamed the "School and University Partnerships for Science and Mathematics Education." The focus would not be narrowed to strictly teacher improvement - as it would have under the original bill - although grant applications that emphasize teacher training would be given preference. Authorization levels for this program would be significantly increased over the original bill, ranging from $63 million in FY 2007 to $103 million in FY 2011 instead of remaining at a steady $50 million per year.
The creation of centers on undergraduate education would be incorporated into the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP). Provisions were added to the bill requiring NSF to study laboratory equipment donations to elementary and secondary schools by institutions of higher education, and to assess its education programs in a manner that would enable comparison of effectiveness with other federal agency education programs.
H.R. 5356: THE RESEARCH FOR COMPETITIVENESS ACT:
The original bills for early-career research grants (H.R. 5356) and award-matching grants (H.R. 5357) at NSF and DOE's Office of Science were combined. The size of the base grant for the award-matching grant program would be increased from $50,000 to $75,000 per year, while the requirement for matching funding from industry would be reduced from $50,000 to $37,500 per year.
The revised bill would provide authorization levels for NSF's Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) Program (climbing from $94.2 million in FY 2007 to $123.4 million in FY 2011), and would expand the range of awards under the MRI program to between $100,000 and $20,000,000.
The bill also authorizes an NSF program to fund cross-disciplinary research relevant to both the physical and nonbiomedical life sciences, and authorizes NSF to support research on the process of innovation and the teaching of inventiveness. It includes language expressing the sense of Congress that NASA should participate in competitiveness initiatives within the spending levels in its 2005 authorization act.
"These measures represent an intelligent middle-ground between those who want to create scores of new, untested, expensive programs and those who argue that all that's necessary is to increase overall funding for basic research and leave everything else to chance," said Chairman Boehlert. In a June 8 speech, Boehlert was hopeful that the bills might reach the House floor before the end of this month. He also expressed optimism that the Science Committee's bills could successfully be combined with competitiveness bills in the Senate, possibly leading to a presidential signature by winter. Selected quotes from Boehlert's speech will follow in FYI #80.
However, White House support of such competitiveness legislation is not yet assured. In a June 5 letter to Boehlert, Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Marburger reportedly criticized the high authorization levels in the committee's bills and charged that they might dilute the impact of President Bush's American Competitiveness Initiative.