In Surprise Move, House Sends America COMPETES Act Successor to President

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Publication date: 
20 December 2016
Number: 
156

In what one senator called an “overtime victory for science in the closing days of 2016,” the House passed the Senate’s “American Innovation and Competitiveness Act,” a bipartisan successor to the America COMPETES Acts of 2007 and 2010. President Obama is expected to sign it into law.

Many assumed that time had run out for the “American Innovation and Competitiveness Act” (AICA) to become law this year. But at the eleventh hour, the Senate was able to negotiate a version of the AICA that could secure bipartisan and bicameral support, and both chambers passed the bill in the waning days of the 114th Congress.

Sponsored by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Gary Peters (D-MI), the AICA emerged this year as a potential successor to the America COMPETES Act. The final bill includes compromises in a number of policy areas, ranging from grant evaluation criteria to funding authorizations to large facility management. Notably, the most controversial provisions from the House’s counterpart to the AICA, the “America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015,” are excluded from the final bill.

First update to COMPETES since 2010

First enacted to much fanfare in 2007 and last updated in 2010, the COMPETES law has been used to set policy for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Department of Energy Office of Science, and various STEM education programs across the federal government.

Since 2010, multiple attempts to update the legislation failed to win support from both chambers. Most recently, the House approved a COMPETES reauthorization in 2015, but the bill faced strong opposition from the scientific community and key Democrats. The bill passed on a party-line vote and the Senate never took it up.

In contrast with the House’s approach, this year the Senate opted to develop a bill which could garner broad bipartisan support. After holding three roundtables with leaders from the R&D community, the Senate introduced the AICA this June and passed a modified version on Dec. 10 just before leaving town for the year.

However, by then the House had already adjourned, leading many to believe that the bill had no chance of making it across the finish line in the current Congress. Even leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee, which drafted the legislation, appeared to think that time had run out, saying that the committee would reintroduce the bill next year.

But in a surprise move, the House passed the AICA on Dec. 16 by unanimous consent, sending it to the president for signature. (Both chambers of Congress can bypass their procedural rules and pass legislation if no single member objects.) President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law.

Committee leaders reflect on long road to passage

“Sending this bill to the White House is an overtime victory for science in the closing days of 2016,” said Senate Commerce Committee Chair John Thune (R-ND) in the committee’s reaction to the House’s move. (The press release’s title, “One Last 2016 Senate Commerce Bill Heads to the White House,” suggests that two other major bills backed by the committee that are pending in the House—the “NASA Transition Authorization Act” and the “Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act”—are unlikely to become law this year.)

House Science Committee Chair Smith Lamar Smith (R-TX) also applauded the AICA passage, describing it as the end product of “a four-year effort to strengthen and reform the agencies and programs that administer taxpayer-supported basic research.”

Key figures in the efforts to update the COMPETES Act in the 114th Congress

Many doubted that the two chambers would be able to negotiate a compromise given the heated debate over the House’s version of the bill. “I did not always believe we would arrive at this agreement,” said House Science Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) in her statement on the AICA’s passage. “The partisan and widely criticized House-passed version of an America Competes Act Reauthorization (H.R. 1806) was miles apart from the widely supported bipartisan Senate bill.”

Following the House’s move, Gardner remarked that the AICA has “made science bipartisan again,” a phrase he has used multiple times since former National Science Board Vice Chair Kelvin Droegemeier used it to describe the Commerce Committee’s approach to drafting the legislation.

Time will tell whether this spirit of bipartisanship will continue into the next Congress and under a new administration. For the past two COMPETES updates, Congress has waited a few years before revisiting the legislation, although Congress could pursue another COMPETES-like bill next year if it so chose.

Compromise reached on ‘national interest’ provision

A primary point of contention in the House’s COMPETES bill was Smith’s insistence that it require NSF to certify that all projects funded by the foundation are in the “national interest,” as defined by a set of seven goals. These goals included improving the economic competitiveness, health, national security, industry-academic partnerships, STEM workforce, scientific literacy, and progress of science within the U.S. As a demonstration of his commitment to this provision, Smith also sponsored the “Scientific Research in the National Interest Act,” which contained a similar requirement and that the House also passed on a mostly party-line vote.

In contrast, the initial version of the AICA introduced this summer contained no mention of “national interest” and directed NSF to continue to use its current peer review criteria—intellectual merit and broader impacts—when evaluating grant proposals. Smith’s bills would have added the national interest criterion on top of the current two.

The final version of the AICA does not add a new review criterion, but it does include a reference to “national interest” and tweaks the statutory definition of the societal goals on which the broader impacts criterion is based. The updated set of goals are similar to the previous ones, although most now include an explicit reference to the U.S. or the American people. In a statement submitted in the Congressional Record, Smith said the AICA “preserves the intent” of his “Scientific Research in the National Interest Act.”

Funding authorizations excluded

Another controversial aspect of the House’s COMPETES bill was that it authorized funding levels for specific NSF directorates rather than only providing a top-line number for the agency, as had been the norm in recent years. Although appropriators do not have to abide by these caps, the directorate-level authorizations were viewed as a symbolic means of prioritizing certain disciplines at the expense of others. In particular, the bill set the authorized amounts for the geoscience and social science directorates at more than $100 million below their prior year amounts.

In contrast, the initial version of the AICA authorized top line increases for NSF and NIST and did not specify amounts for individual NSF directorates. However, these funding authorizations were also a stumbling block in the Senate, as at least one senator objected to the bill endorsing increases without identifying a means of offsetting this additional spending. The opposition of even a single member can derail legislation in the Senate, as many bills rely on unanimous consent agreements to circumvent the Senate’s time-consuming formal procedures.

The final version of the AICA simply omits funding authorizations. Johnson lamented their absence in her statement on the final bill:

AICA, unlike Competes, does not contain any recommended funding levels, and I believe that is a missed opportunity to send a signal to U.S. scientists and the world about how much we value and need a vibrant U.S. science and technology enterprise.

Summary of selected provisions

Below is a summary of additional selected provisions from the bill, broken out by the title in which they appear. Note that the bill does not include any provisions specific to DOE, as those were instead incorporated into a pending energy policy bill that appears unlikely to pass this year.

TITLE I: Maximizing Basic Research

  • NSF grant abstracts: Requires each public notice of a NSF-funded research project to “clearly identif[y] the research goals of the project in a manner that can be easily understood by technical and non-technical audiences.” This requirement is in line with an update NSF made to its grant policies in 2014.
  • NSF large facility management: Includes various measures to strengthen NSF’s management of large facilities throughout their life-cycle. Notably, it requires NSF to assess the full life-cycle cost for all proposed major multi-user facilities, but does not place limitations on the use of management fees, as was proposed by the House’s “NSF Major Research Facility Reform Act.”
  • NSF mid-scale research: Directs NSF to develop a strategy for meeting existing and future needs for mid-scale research infrastructure across all disciplines. Mid-scale projects are defined as those that fall between the upper limit of the Major Research Instrumentation program and the lower limit of the Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) program. Notably, NSF recently lowered the eligibility threshold for MREFC projects to $70 million from around $100 million.
  • NSF rotators: Requires NSF to submit to Congress an annual justification for each rotating employee who is paid more than the maximum rate of pay for Senior Executive Service employees. NSF’s extensive use of rotators has come under scrutiny in recent years.
  • Research misconduct: Requires NSF to notify other federal science agencies when it discovers that an NSF-funded principal investigator has performed research misconduct.
  • Research reproducibility: Directs NSF to commission a National Academies assessment of research and data reproducibility and replicability issues in interdisciplinary research.
  • Physical sciences coordination: Assigns a subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council responsibilities for enhancing coordination on high energy physics, radiation biology, and fusion energy research.
  • 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.
  • EPSCoR: Reaffirms Congress’s support of the program and changes its name from the “Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research” to the “Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.” Some lawmakers have recently criticized the eligibility criteria for this program, which provides states that have historically struggled to win federal grants access to a special pot of money.
  • Quantum computing: Instructs NIST to research and, if necessary, develop quantum computer-resistant cryptography standards.
  • Networking and IT R&D: Makes various updates to the statute underpinning the federal Networking and Information Technology R&D (NITRD) program.

TITLE II: Administrative and Regulatory Burden Reduction

  • Research regulations working group: Creates an interagency working group tasked with recommending means of reducing burdens from research regulations. The group is also directed to develop a uniform grant format to be used by all federal science agencies as well as a centralized researcher profile database. How this group will relate to the new Research Policy Board created by the 21st Century Cures Act is not yet clear.
  • Micro-purchase threshold: Raises the threshold at which certain procurements by certain research institutions funded by NSF, NASA, and NIST are subject to additional regulations from $3,000 to an inflation-indexed $10,000 or a higher threshold if deemed appropriate by the head of the relevant executive agency. This year’s National Defense Authorization Act includes a similar provision.
  • National Nanotechnology Initiative: Changes the frequency of reporting requirements associated with the National Nanotechnology Initiative.
  • International coordination: Creates a body within the National Science and Technology Council tasked with identifying opportunities for international cooperation on science and technology-related projects.

TITLE III: STEM Education

  • STEM Education Advisory Panel: Creates an advisory committee of not less than 11 persons primarily drawn from outside the government and tasked with providing advice to the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on STEM Education.
  • Center of excellence for broadening participation: Authorizes NSF to establish a “Center of Excellence” which collects and distributes information to help increase participation of underrepresented groups in STEM.
  • STEM inclusion working group: Directs OSTP to establish 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 to 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.
  • NIST director role: Authorizes the director of NIST to serve as the president’s “principal adviser on standards policy pertaining to the Nation's technological competitiveness and innovation ability.”
  • Manufacturing Extension Partnership: Changes the federal cost share to 50 percent.
  • Innovation Corps: Allows researchers, students, and institutions funded by agencies other than NSF to participate in NSF’s 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.
  • Chief Technology Officer: Authorizes the president to designate one of the Senate-confirmed Associate Directors for OSTP as the U.S. Chief Technology Officer. The current CTO, Megan Smith, was not confirmed by the Senate.

About the author

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mambrose [at] aip.org
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