Last week’s two-hour hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation revealed much support for federal funding of basic research but few details about the committee’s plans to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act.
The original COMPETES legislation was passed in 2007, and was reauthorized – with considerably more difficulty – in 2010. The act expired on September 30 of this year. Known best for its goal of the doubling of the budgets of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the National Science Foundation, and the research programs of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the legislation set important policy direction and funding goals. Actual funding, provided by annual appropriations legislation, has fallen short of the goals set by the first two versions of this legislation.
The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee is moving on a reauthorization of the legislation, pursuing a strategy of passing a bill authorizing the DOE Office of Science, and a separate bill for the NSF and NIST. A hearing on a DOE draft authorization bill was held on October 30; a hearing on the NSF and NIST draft bill was held on November 13.
“I will again push for reauthorization of this important legislation this Congress” said Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) in his opening remarks at the Senate hearing on November 6. Rockefeller’s support of science and technology, and the COMPETES legislation was obvious, as he remarked “I don’t know of anything more important than this hearing.” Senator John Thune (R-SD), the committee’s Ranking Member, expressed similar, if more guarded support, stating “I believe it is important to remember our current budget realities and the need to set federal funding priorities in scientific research and continue to improve coordination.”
It is unclear how the committee will go forward on a reauthorization bill. The committee passed the last bill quickly by a unanimous voice vote in 2010, with Rockefeller then explaining that Members and staff had spent hours on amendments “to try to make people happy.” The process and outcome was different this summer when the committee passed by a strictly party-line vote a NASA reauthorization bill. At that hearing a senior Republican senator commented the bill had been unveiled only a week before with no discussion, remarking that the vote was a “sour note” in the committee’s bipartisan history of supporting NASA. Not surprisingly, the partisan divide was about funding levels and the degree to which authorization bills should reflect spending limits set by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
The first witness to testify before the committee was Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) who gave an eloquent statement about the importance of reauthorizing the COMPETES legislation. Alexander was instrumental in getting the original bill passed. He urged the committee “to authorize the appropriations committees to finish the job that the Congress started in an overwhelming, remarkable, bipartisan way in 2007 to double the budgets for basic research at major research institutions in our federal government.” While acknowledging budget constraints, he declared “governing is about setting priorities.” Alexander sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Toward the end of his five-minute statement, he said “I think it is up to you to authorize what our goals should be and it’s up to us on the appropriations committee to decide how much to spend each year.”
The committee heard from four additional witnesses who each stressed the importance of science and technology. There was little discussion about the new reauthorization legislation. National Science Board Vice Chairman Kelvin Droegemeier testified “this is a difficult time for Federal budgets and for individuals in the academic, nonprofit and public sectors who rely on Federal support. Investments in science and technology compete with a host of other legitimate funding priorities.” Responding to questions, he stated that students and young researchers are “quite discouraged” because of low success rates in securing NSF grants and significant delays in facilities’ construction because of budget sequestration.
Saul Perlmutter of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory spoke of the difficulties in conducting new research due to flat funding levels, sequestration cuts, and more lately, the government shutdown. He warned the committee that American students are going elsewhere to pursue their research because of uncertain future funding levels. Perlmutter told the committee:
“Some will argue that during periods of constrained budgets all federal investments must be curtailed, cut back and reduced. Admittedly, there are always opportunities to find efficiencies and reduce costs. But, scrimping on science and holding up scientific progress, for whatever reason, is penny wise and pound foolish. Even in tough economic times and tight budgets it is possible to spend money wisely and make the investments necessary to reap a brighter future. The economic argument, though perhaps not immediately obvious to some, is singularly compelling. Yet, there is a broader and perhaps more important argument to be examined. Scientific advancement has made the world a better place -- living standards are rising across the planet, fewer people are hungry and life spans are increasing. Science paves the way for a more peaceful and productive existence.”
Similar points were made by Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe and University City Science Center President and CEO Stephen Tang. All of the testimony was well received.
A variety of topics were raised by the senators, including recent discoveries at South Dakota’s Large Underground Xenon experiment, EPSCoR, computer science and cybersecurity, increasing the diversity of students in STEM fields, federal STEM program consolidation, public-private partnerships, and technology transfer. Committee Democrats criticized the effects of sequestration on the research community, with Rockefeller asking for the help of scientists in publicizing its impacts and pressuring Congress to abolish it. “Sequestration goes on and on and you go down and down,” Rockefeller said to the witnesses.