COMPETES Successor Released by Senate Committee, Markup Scheduled for Next Week

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Publication date: 
23 June 2016

The Senate’s bipartisan bill, released today, differs significantly from the House-passed America COMPETES bill, dropping the COMPETES name altogether and striking a different tone on scientific merit review.

Today, Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Gary Peters (D-MI) released a successor to the America COMPETES Act—the primary legislative vehicle in recent years for setting policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, as well as for setting some broader R&D and STEM education policy. The Senate bill has been anticipated since the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing last month after a series of three stakeholder roundtables in 2015. The committee has decided to drop the COMPETES label altogether, instead calling the bill the “American Innovation and Competitiveness Act.”

The committee plans to mark up the bill next Wednesday morning. The bill does not currently include agency funding level authorizations, but the committee has said that it will add these numbers to the bill during the markup.

Sens. John Thune (R-SD) and Bill Nelson (D-FL), the chairman and ranking member of the Commerce Committee, are co-sponsors of the bill alongside Gardner and Peters. Unlike the House, the Senate took a bipartisan approach to drafting the bill, and so it unsurprisingly differs significantly from both the House COMPETES bill—which the chamber passed on a mostly party line vote last May—and an alternative bill put forth by House Democrats.

The bill’s major sections largely match the topics of the three roundtables Gardner and Peters convened last year. Titles I and II deal with “maximizing basic research” and “administrative and regulatory burden reduction”—together, the focus of the first roundtable. Title III covers STEM education, the topic of the second. The last three titles deal with private sector engagement, manufacturing, innovation, and technology transfer—topics explored in the final roundtable.

Bill reaffirms merit review process, pushes for easier conference travel

The very first provision of the bill is perhaps its most significant:

It is the sense of Congress that the Foundation’s intellectual merit and broader impacts criteria remain appropriate for evaluating grant proposals, as concluded by the 2011 National Science Board Task Force on Merit Review; … The Foundation shall maintain the intellectual merit and broader impacts criteria, among other specific criteria as appropriate, as the basis for evaluating grant proposals in the merit review process.

This language makes it clear that the committee does not share the House’s sentiment—expressed via the House-passed COMPETES bill and the House-passed “Scientific Research in the National Interest Act”— that NSF’s merit review process needs updating.

Another particularly notable provision requires the White House Office of Management and Budget to revise policies for approving federal researcher attendance of scientific and technical conferences:

(b) POLICY.—It is the policy of the United States to encourage broad dissemination [of] Federal research findings and engagement of Federal researchers with the scientific and technical community.

(c) AUTHORITY.—Laboratory, test center, and field center directors and other similar heads of offices may approve scientific and technical workshop attendance if— (1) that attendance would meet the mission of the laboratory or test center; and (2) sufficient laboratory or test center funds are available for that purpose.

(d) ATTENDANCE POLICIES.—Not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, in consultation with the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the heads of other relevant Federal science agencies, shall revise current policies and streamline processes, in accordance with the policy under subsection (b), for attendance at scientific and technical workshops while ensuring appropriate oversight, accountability, and transparency.

Broad restrictions on federal employee travel implemented after a 2012 General Services Administration conference scandal are widely viewed to have had an especially negative impact on federal researchers who rely on attending conferences to stay engaged with the broader scientific and technical community.

Mid-scale musings

The bill observes that many proposed instruments and facility upgrades are not eligible to receive funding from NSF’s Major Research Instrumentation and Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction accounts, falling in between the eligibility thresholds. After citing the 2010 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey’s recommendation for a “vigorous mid-scale innovations program,” the bill recommends NSF establish a new funding mechanism for mid-scale projects:

It is the sense of Congress that the addition of a competitive mid-scale funding opportunity that includes both research, instrument[s], and infrastructure is essential to the portfolio of the Foundation and advancing scientific understanding.

The bill then directs NSF to evaluate existing and future needs for mid-scale projects and to develop a strategy for meeting those needs. The foundation is likely to welcome this tasking, as NSF Director France Córdova identified increased support of mid-scale projects as one of three “process” ideas within her set of nine big ideas for the foundation’s future that she recently unveiled.

Group tasked with developing a uniform grant format and researcher profile database

The centerpiece of the bill’s approach to reducing administrative and regulatory burden is the creation of an interagency working group on the subject led by OMB and OSTP. Two particularly interesting responsibilities assigned to the working group are the development of a uniform federal science grant format and a “centralized researcher profile database,” described as follows:

[The Working Group] shall develop, to the extent practicable, a simplified, uniform grant format to be used by all Federal science agencies … [and] shall establish, to the extent practicable, a secure, centralized database for investigator biosketches, curriculum vitae, licenses, publications, and other documents considered relevant by the Working Group.

These provisions were inspired by a recent National Academies study which recommended that Congress, among other actions, should encourage the creation of a uniform grant proposal format and should task an agency with developing a centralized investigator database.

The bill also stipulates that investigators themselves will play a role in maintaining the database and that each will be assigned a unique identifier: “Each investigator shall (i) be responsible for ensuring the investigator’s profile is current and accurate; and (ii) be assigned a unique identifier linked to the database and accessible to all Federal funding agencies.”

Other highlights from the bill

Below is a summary of additional selected provisions from the bill, broken out by the title in which they appear.

Title I: Maximizing Basic Research

  • NSF grant abstracts: Requires each abstract for a NSF-funded project describe how the project reflects NSF’s mission statement and addresses the two merit review criteria. The abstract also must “clearly identif[y] the research priorities of the project in a manner that can be easily understood by technical and non-technical audiences”
  • EPSCoR: Reaffirms Congress’s support of the program and changes its name from the “Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research” to the “Established Program…”
  • Quantum computing: Instructs NIST to research and, if necessary, develop quantum computer-resistant cryptography standards
  • High energy physics: Assigns a subcommittee of the White House National Science and Technology Council responsibilities for providing recommendations on high energy physics research and facilities construction priorities (a similar provision is included in the Senate-passed energy policy bill)
  • NIST labs: Directs NIST to develop and implement a strategic plan for its lab programs that includes “performance metrics for the dissemination of fundamental research results, measurements, and standards research results to industry” and that clarifies NIST’s approach to technology transfer
  • NSF large facility management: Includes various measures to strengthen NSF’s management of large facilities, such as implementing more extensive cost estimation procedures

Title III: STEM Education

  • STEM Education Advisory Panel: Creates an advisory committee of not less than 11 persons appointed by the NSF director tasked with providing advice to the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on STEM Education
  • Broadening participation: Directs NSF to continue to support existing programs designed to broaden participation of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in STEM fields
  • Centers of excellence for STEM inclusion: Instructs NSF to establish at least one center of excellence which collects and distributes information to help increase participation of underrepresented groups in STEM
  • STEM inclusion working group: Tasks OSTP with establishing an interagency working group responsible for compiling and summarizing research and best practices on promoting inclusion in STEM fields, with a particular eye toward the federal STEM workforce
  • Undergraduate STEM experiences: Requires each federal agency submit recommendations on how to expand research opportunities for students during their first two years of postsecondary education

Titles IV, V & VI: Leveraging the Private Sector / Manufacturing / Innovation, Commercialization, and Technology Transfer

  • Prize authority: Gives federal agencies more flexibility in designing and conducting prize competitions
  • Crowdsourcing and citizen science: Encourages federal agencies to make further use of crowdsourcing and citizen science methods to fulfill their missions. (Elements of this section are from the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2015)
  • Innovation Corps: Allows researchers, students, and institutions funded by agencies other than NSF to participate in NSF’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program, and directs NSF to provide competitively awarded grants to I-Corps participants for prototype and proof-of-concept development
  • Translational research grants: Directs NSF to continue awarding competitive grants to support commercialization of federally-funded research and defines the types of institutions eligible for such grants
  • Optics and photonics: Expresses the sense of Congress that federal science agencies, industry, and academia should enhance coordination of optics and photonics research

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