Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Discusses COMPETES Act Reauthorization

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Publication date: 
1 August 2014

“There can be absolutely no question that investing in science and technology, in innovation, and in educating our young people is critical to maintaining our nation’s global leadership…. The money that we put into basic research, into understanding the world around us, has a real world impact,” stated Chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV).

Rockefeller opened the “Capitalizing on Investments in Research and Development” hearing on July 17 by noting the influence of federal science funding agencies.  Government funding for research and development has fostered prize competitions that have allowed over 16,000 participants to focus on national challenges.  Rockefeller highlighted the impact of the Robert Noyce Teacher Fellowship Program which as of last year “is expected to help produce over 12,000 math and science teachers in high-need districts.”  In response to disagreement on Capitol Hill over issues such as appropriate levels of funding for research, Rockefeller cautioned the House of Representatives to remember that “unless we choose to support science in this country, and it is a choice … the next world-changing innovation will not belong to us.”

Ranking Member John Thune (R-SD) expressed interest in discussing “the impact of the U.S. research and development enterprise on our economy and our society.”  He noted that the U.S. is “by far the largest investor in public and private research and development, comprising 30 percent of the global research and development total.”  He was interested in examining “ways to leverage even more private sector resources to expand the reach of our research and development.”  Thune advocated for making permanent the research and development tax credit, which “encourages businesses to continue investigating in research and development and promotes jobs and manufacturing.”  He was particularly interested in hearing from witnesses about barriers to innovation, challenges in investing in long-term research, and policies beyond those that rely on federal funding that could promote private sector research and development.      

Four witnesses testified.  Vinton Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist of Google spoke about the interconnected nature of basic and applied research noting that in some cases applied research “is a form of validation because the success or failure of the application may reinforce or contradict the theoretically predicted results and the underlying theory… one must pursue both in the effort to uncover new knowledge.”  He stressed that successful applied research projects take time to mature and that “failure is the handmaiden of wisdom in the scientific world.”   Regarding computer science education, Cerf advocated that “computer science should be a required part of the K-12 curriculum.  Every student should have some exposure to the concept of programming.”   He supported the goals of the Maker Movement because it is “contributing to a rebirth of American interest in small-scale manufacturing.”

Mariette DiChristina, Editor in Chief and Senior Vice President of Scientific American also described the interrelated nature of scientific research and stressed that “a third to a half of U.S. economic growth has resulted from basic research since World War II.”  She explained how researchers pioneer basic concepts stating that “conducting basic research properly also means following human curiosity and exploring questions that may not have immediately obvious answers or applications.”  DiChristina provided details about the U.S. track record of federal investments noting the importance of steady funding.  She cited R&D Magazine which determined that “U.S. federal funding was key to nearly 90 percent of almost 100 top innovations from 1971 to 2006.”   

Neal Lane, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Rice University and Senior Fellow of the Baker Institute for Public Policy discussed the federal government investment in research and the role of research in economic prosperity.  “Many presidents – Democrats and Republicans – have emphasized the importance of science, engineering and technology to the nation’s leadership in the world,” he stated as he emphasized that research refers to all fields in the physical and life sciences and the social and behavioral sciences.  He discussed the total U.S. investment in research and development stating that it “continues to fall short of the national goal adopted by several presidents of 3% of GDP, even as America’s economic competitors move aggressively to increase their own investments.”  Disappointed that the US investments in research and development have “fallen to 10th place among OECD countries,” Lane emphasized that “companies depend on a continuous stream of new scientific discoveries and early-stage technologies that flow from the federal government’s investments in research.”   

Stephen Fienberg, Professor of Statistics and Social Science at Carnegie Mellon University lauded the benefits of federal research investments and outlined a recent National Academies report, Furthering America’s Research Enterprise, which measures the impact of research on society.  Fienberg is a member of the Committee on Assessing the Value of Research in Advancing National Goals which produced the report.  Fienberg outlined the report recommendations including that the Committee found that “current measures are inadequate to guide national decisions about what research investments will expand the benefits of science.”  The Committee also emphasized the need for stable and predictable federal research funding. 

Discussions following the testimony were focused on the role of basic and applied research.  Cerf stressed the importance of the fundamental foundation that the government provides researchers.  Thune was interested in discussing the U.S. assessment of the benefits of research relative to other countries.  Fienberg responded by stating there is a need for improvement in this area. 

The complex process of discovery was also a part of the discussion.  Cerf and Fienberg emphasized that failure plays an important role in that process and witnesses discussed the patience necessary to handle that benefit.  Lane was also able to discuss the benefits of the research and development tax credit.

Senators Rockefeller, Richard Durbin (D-IL), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Chris Coons (D-DE) and Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2014 on July 31.