Senate Appropriations Committee Holds Innovation Hearing

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Publication date: 
16 May 2014

The Senate Committee on Appropriations held an April 29 hearing to examine federal investments in innovation.  More than 100 organizations, including the American Astronomical Society and American Physical Society, both member societies of the American Institute of Physics, submitted testimony. Five witnesses testified at the hearing.  Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) opened the hearing by asking “are we running an innovation deficit?”  She highlighted that “the hallmark of our DNA has always been in discovery, entrepreneurship, and the protection of intellectual property” and commended senators on both sides of the aisle for supporting federal research investments. 

Vice Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) spoke about the Budget Control Act that provided “feasible” spending caps.  He cautioned the committee that the Congressional Budget Office projects federal debt to become 78 percent of the Gross Domestic Product by 2024.  Shelby stated that the senators need to make tough decisions regarding research and development priorities.

John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy of the Executive Office of the President, began his testimony by noting the President’s emphasis on science, technology and innovation.  He spoke about robust and reliable federal investments in research and development as drivers of economic advances.  “The federal government remains the largest producer of basic research,” Holdren stated as he described the 1950 Act which created the National Science Foundation (NSF).  He stated that the NSF peer review process “is the gold standard” and there is a need to protect and preserve the integrity of this process or face risks of “eroding the cornerstone of American science and engineering excellence.”  Holdren cautioned that if current trends continue, China will surpass the U.S. in research and development funding.  Holdren nuanced his stance by discussing how globalization benefits the progress and advancement of science while at the same time its “intensification presents challenges to the U.S. … including consequences for our competitiveness and security.”

Ernest Moniz, Secretary of Energy described the scientific discovery that takes place at the Department of Energy (DOE).  He discussed developments in supercomputing that are fundamental to DOE research.  Moniz mentioned the Department’s support of light sources, neutron sources, and particle accelerators provides the nation with premier tools for study of many scientific disciplines.  Additionally he outlined the DOE’s work in advanced manufacturing and showcased a hand which had been 3D printed. 

Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health presented impacts of the agency such as how NIH research has impacted cancer deaths and HIV vaccines.  Collins discussed the economic benefits from NIH research also, pointing to the Human Genome Project.  He noted that other countries are advancing in biomedical research and that the U.S. grant success rate has “plummeted to historic lows.”  Collins advocated for the need for a new bipartisan plan to secure a steady funding trajectory for the agency to ensure long term stability. 

France Cordova, Director of the National Science Foundation spoke about the NSF’s pursuit of fundamental science and provided examples of societal impacts of NSF research.  She noted the agency’s funding for the development of early-stage scientific research and support of technical talent.

The final witness was Arati Prabhakar, Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  She noted that DARPA’s high risk, high reward investments have allowed for the development of technology that transforms society.  While public taxes laid the foundation for the development of this technology, private investments built industries that benefited from the federal investments, she stated.  She provided the senators with information on the agency’s work in cybersecurity, big data, biology, and development of military systems. 

Following the witness statements, Shelby inquired about the process of transitioning government research into a commercialized product,  Cordova responded by explaining the role of the NSF as the starting point for new knowledge and new discovery.  She described the role of the iCorps model which allows scientists to explore the economic markets relevant to their research. 

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) spoke about the former Office of Technology Assessment before he began his questions about DOE budgets.  He advocated that there is a need for Congress to have access to scientific and technical assessment information such as that which was provided by the former Office.  His opening question was about the investments in the Human Genome Project.  Collins responded that federal investments in the Project totaled $3.8 billion in DOD and NIH but created $978 billion in economic growth. 

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) spoke about the goal of doubling funding for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NSF, and DOE Office of Science.  He called on members of the scientific community to help the Senators deal with the decisions to relating to increases in mandatory spending and thus decreases the amount of federal discretionary and science funding. 

Many senators inquired about particular areas of research and the hearing demonstrated bipartisan interest in supporting innovation.  Senator Christopher Coons (D-DE) was interested in discussing technology transfer and energy security while Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) was interested in hearing from witnesses about Alzheimer’s disease research.  Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) asked about how NIH makes decision about allocations of funding for disease research and Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) focused his questions on technology transfer and supporting entrepreneurs. 

Senator Mikulski ended the hearing by discussing programs at the DOE, DARPA, NSF, and NIH.  She also addressed funding constraints, how to sustain the research pipeline, and support breakthrough research.  The committee was very supportive of the work of each of the agencies represented at the hearing and the discussion session included many questions on both sides of the aisle regarding how federal investments help promote U.S. research and development activities.