Science Panel Cuts Authorization Levels for Three COMPETES Agencies

The House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee today scaled back proposed funding levels for three key science agencies as part of its reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act. But the totals, smaller than in earlier drafts of the legislation, are still consistent with the Administration's pledge to double their budgets in a decade. And as one lobbyist noted, "the numbers are still the best game in town."

The new COMPETES legislation would fine-tune a 2007 law, which expires this year, that governs dozens of research and education programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Among other things, the legislation, HR 5116, lays out several new initiatives to improve science and math education, describes operating procedures for DOE's new energy hubs and its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, gives NSF the authority to offer prizes for knotty research challenges, and creates an Office of Innovation within the Department of Commerce.

Although actual spending levels for all of these activities and more are determined by appropriations committees, the authorizing language represents the science committee's considered opinion about the relative importance of various research activities within those agencies. As such, the closer those levels reflect political realities, the more likely they are to be followed by the spending panels.

The current overriding reality is a $1-trillion-plus budget deficit. That staggering imbalance prompted the chair of the science committee, Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN), to take the unusual step of paring 10% from spending levels he had spelled out in his version of the reauthorization bill introduced only last week and revised on Monday. "These levels are lower than I'd like them to be," Gordon confessed at the start of the day-long markup session that was expected to continue into the evening. "But I consider them to be practical."

For example, NSF saw its authorized spending level lowered from $8.2 billion to $7.5 billion for the 2011 fiscal year that begins in October—President Obama has requested the latter—and its 2015 authorization would shrink from $10.7 billion to $10.2 billion. Likewise, DOE's Office of Science would be authorized at $5.2 billion in 2011 rather than $6.2 billion, and top out at $6.9 billion rather than $8.1 billion in 2015. But those smaller totals still amount to an average annual increase of 7% over the promised doubling period, Gordon pointed out.

"That's a whole lot better than the freeze" that many other civilian agencies are facing next year, notes Sam Rankin of the Coalition for National Science Funding. While the science committee can't deliver on those numbers, he says, "it's still a nice place to start from."