Senate Bill to Reauthorize COMPETES Act

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Publication date: 
7 August 2014

Before leaving for the summer recess six Democratic senators introduced a 150-page bill to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act for the next five fiscal years, setting funding ceilings for the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Science Foundation.  Other provisions of S. 2757 authorize STEM education, nanotechnology, optics, and other programs to increase American competitiveness.  The legislation also includes provisions on NSF’s peer review process, administrative burdens associated with grants, family leave policy in federal research agencies, and participation in scientific conferences.

“COMPETES remains essential today,” declared a three-page statement by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation describing S. 2757 when it was introduced on July 31.  The bill was introduced by the committee’s chairman, John (Jay) Rockefeller (D-WV); other cosponsors are Richard Durbin (D-IL), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Christopher Coons (D-DE), and Edward Markey (D-MA).  No Republican senator sponsored the bill.    

The original COMPETES legislation was enacted in 2007.  The National Academies 2005 report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future” was the impetus for this legislation.  It set a target, never realized, of doubling in five years the budgets of the DOE Office of Science, the research programs of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Foundation.

Bipartisan support for COMPETES legislation has faltered since its enactment.   While the original 2007 bill enjoyed strong bipartisan support in both chambers, the 2010 renewal of the bill was far more contentious in the House of Representatives.  Although support for federal science and technology programs is strong in both parties, concerns about deficit spending and other policy and procedural matters made the passage of a reauthorization bill difficult.  Recent action to reauthorize the legislation was even more contentious when the Republican leadership of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee developed two bills to reauthorize the three agencies.  The bill pertaining to NSF and NIST was strongly criticized because of provisions relating to NSF’s grant-making process.  A subcommittee markup of the second bill to reauthorize the DOE Office of Science was abruptly halted.  The Science Committee developed a third bill reauthorizing NIST that was recently passed by the House and which will be reviewed in a future issue of FYI.  

The new Senate bill authorizes spending for NIST and NSF for fiscal years 2015 through 2019.  The legislation does not provide the actual funding (which is done through appropriations bills) but instead sets targets or ceiling limits guiding spending in those years.   For NIST, the bill’s FY 2015 authorization of $912.7 million is higher than the Administration’s request of $900.0 million.  The authorization levels would increase by approximately 6.7 percent in subsequent years under the bill.  NIST’s current budget is $850.0 million, which is an increase of 10.9 percent from the previous year.

The bill’s authorization strategy for NSF is similar.  It sets an FY 2015 authorization level of $7,649.3 million; the Administration’s request was $7,255.0 million.  NSF’s authorizations would also increase approximately 6.7 percent in subsequent years.  NSF’s current budget is $7,171.9 million, which is up 4.3 percent from the previous year.

The authorization levels are but one component of the bill.   A review of the bill’s Table of Contents (pp. 2-3) reviews the broad scope of the legislation.  Much of the bill focuses on the future development of a science and technology workforce in STEM education provisions for the Office of Science and Technology Policy, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NSF.   The bill discusses the importance of federal support for social, behavioral, and economic sciences which has come under criticism in the House of Representatives.  Another provision comments on the importance of federal scientific advisory bodies in determining the R&D priorities of federal agencies (pp. 6-7).   

Section 103 of the bill (p. 11) discusses administrative burdens in federally-sponsored research.  Amendments to current law regarding prize competitions are found on page 14.  Also receiving attention in Section 106 (p. 22) is coordinated federal science agency policy for family caregivers.  Section 107 (p. 25) addresses the importance of participation in scientific and technical conferences.

Title IV of the bill (p. 33) contains very extensive language regarding NIST and its programs, including the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership and a new manufacturing fellowship program. 

Title V (p.69) has much language pertaining to the NSF. Section 504 (p. 77) has a strongly supportive statement on the merit review process, no doubt in response to critics of NSF in the House of Representatives, stating “as evidenced by the Foundation’s contributions to scientific advancement, economic development, human health, and national security, its peer review and merit review processes have successfully identified and funded scientifically and societally-relevant research and must be preserved.” Extensive provisions starting on page 79 pertain to the foundation’s diverse education programs, including a call for the use of evaluation metrics.  Commercialization grants (p. 98) are intended to “promote the translation of Foundation-sponsored research discoveries into the marketplace.”  

Title VI (p. 123) includes language regarding loan guarantees for science parks, regional innovation clusters, workforce studies, and advanced manufacturing.  Of note is language in Section 614 (p. 132) regarding optics and photonics and, in a separate section,  the National Nanotechnology Initiative (p. 133). 

The outlook for this bill is highly uncertain.  Between now and the November 4 election Congress is due to be in session for only 12 legislative days after which there may be a lame duck session.  Chairman Rockefeller is retiring at the end of this Congress.  And S. 2757 now has only Democratic sponsors with the possibility of a change in party control of the Senate next year.  Finally, the Senate bill differs considerably and in some cases dramatically from the House Science Committee’s reauthorization bill.

The last reauthorization of the America COMPETES bill was passed just days before Christmas in 2010.  Its passage was not expected, and the enactment of some new version of follow-on legislation cannot be ruled out.  The current dynamics of Capitol Hill, however, seem to make this much less likely to occur this year.