Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX)

Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX)

House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

Controversy awaits as House Republicans roll out long-awaited bill to revamp U.S. research policy

The science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives took a major step today in its 2-year effort to reshape federal research policy, introducing a long-awaited and controversial bill that covers the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), research at the Department of Energy (DOE), and federal science education policy.

The 189-page legislation, called a reauthorization, includes suggested spending levels, as well as changes to a host of current policies and practices. It would replace a law covering those agencies that expired in 2013. The science committee had initially broken up that law, first passed in 2007 and revised in 2010, into several pieces. But today’s bill folds them all into one and retains the original name—the America COMPETES Act.

Authored by the panel’s chair, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the text was not shared ahead of time with the panel’s minority members and has no Democratic sponsors. Likewise, the scientific community will need time to digest its wealth of details—some of which are certain to infuriate, whereas others are likely to please. But there won’t be much time for cogitation: The committee plans to convene next Wednesday to mark up the legislation. 

Based on an initial review, here are some provisions that the research community is likely to find interesting. Stay tuned for more analysis and reaction.

NSF spending: The bill would authorize $7.6 billion for NSF in 2016, $126 million less than President Barack Obama has requested but $253 million more than NSF’s current budget. More importantly, however, it would reallocate NSF’s research dollars to favor the natural sciences and engineering at the expense of the geosciences and the social and behavioral sciences. In particular, it tacks on roughly $100 million to the president’s request for four NSF directorates—biology, computing, engineering, and math and physical sciences. In contrast, it slices $165 million from the request for the geosciences, $100 million from education, and $140 million—almost half of the current amount—from the social and behavioral sciences.

The bill adds a second year of authorized spending at levels identical to 2016. That’s a cruel twist for science advocates, who generally prefer a longer reauthorization but who will be apoplectic that NSF’s budget would remain flat in 2017.

DOE R&D: The bill calls for funding most Office of Science programs at 2016 levels that match those proposed by the Obama administration and then keeping budgets flat in 2017. It also calls for slashing spending on more applied renewable energy programs and efforts to push new energy technologies into the marketplace while boosting spending on fossil and nuclear energy.

Overall, the Office of Science would get a 5.4% boost to $5.34 billion. Advanced computing programs would jump nearly 15% to $621 million, while Basic Energy Sciences would rise 6.7% to $1.85 billion. High Energy Physics would grow 2.9% to $788 million and Nuclear Physics 4.9% to $625 million.

But the bill includes two major funding disagreements with the White House. It would boost the fusion research budget to $488 million, $20 million above current levels and $68 million above the president’s request. And it would cut the Office of Science’s Biological and Environmental Research (BER) program to $550 million, 7% below its current level of $592 million and 10% below the White House’s 2016 request for $612 million. In addition to paring BER’s budget, the bill’s sponsors want program managers to put a priority on basic biological and genomics research and downplay climate research. It would bar BER from starting any new climate science research unless it can show it does not duplicate work being funded by other federal agencies. It also asks DOE to cancel any existing climate research found to be duplicative.

The bill orders up a host of other studies, including one on how the United States can become a leader in building and operating light sources for materials research, and another on the feasibility of building a national network of pipelines for carrying carbon dioxide (apparently with the idea of pumping it underground to curb climate change). It also calls for studies of exascale computing research, low-dose radiation science, and the effectiveness of DOE’s efforts to commercialize research discoveries. DOE is also asked to examine the possibility of hosting privately owned experimental fusion and nuclear reactors at its national laboratories.

Funding for DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would drop dramatically, by more than one-third of the current level, to $1.2 billion. And funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy would be cut in half, to $140 million, from the current $280 million.

Peer review: One of the biggest sticking points between the science committee and the research community since Smith became chair in 2013 has been his attempt to reshape how NSF reviews the 50,000 or so requests for funding it receives every year from scientists. But the two sides now appear to have come to agreement on the contentious issue, which Smith has framed as ensuring that NSF carries out research in the national interest. Section 106 of the bill adopts a definition that was hammered out over many months of negotiations between Smith and NSF Director France Córdova. The legislation also says that “nothing in this section shall be construed as altering the Foundation’s intellectual merit or broader impacts criteria for evaluating grant applications.”

NSF’s portfolio: One provision that wasn’t in earlier versions is likely to come as a big shock to NSF officials. As part of a list of motherhood-and-apple pie goals that include conducting basic research and helping the public understand the value of investing in science, the bill gives NSF the responsibility “to evaluate scientific research programs undertaken by [other] agencies of the federal government.” The language appears to put NSF in the awkward position of judging what the rest of the federal research establishment is doing. That’s an untenable role for a single agency, and the idea is likely a political nonstarter.

Large new facilities: Another contentious provision relates to the bill’s attempt to rein in cost overruns and wasteful spending on the construction of big-bucks scientific facilities like telescopes, ships, and networked instrumentation. Specifically, it requires NSF to “correct” any problems identified by an independent audit of the project’s expected cost before starting construction. It also restricts spending from a contingency fund to those “occurrences that are foreseeable with certainty … and supported by verifiable cost data.” That language appears to contradict the normal meaning of a contingency fund, which is to cover expenses that cannot be anticipated.

Administrative burden: Academic leaders will be heartened to read the bill’s support for reducing what they see as unnecessary and costly government regulations that hinder the conduct of research on U.S. campuses and at not-for-profit institutions. The 2010 COMPETES Act ordered up a study of the problem by the U.S. National Academies—the committee’s second meeting takes place tomorrow, in fact. But the legislation appears to jump ahead of the committee’s deliberations by reaching its own conclusion: “High and increasing administration burdens and costs in federal research administration … are eroding funds available to carry out basic scientific research.” The bill would require the White House science adviser to convene an interagency panel that would recommend “how to … minimize the regulatory burden on U.S. institutions of higher education performing federally funded research.” Even better for academics, the panel would be required to solicit their views.  

NIST: The bill calls for NIST’s overall budget to rise to to $934 million in 2016, about 8% above its current level of $864 million, but below the president’s request for $1.1 billion. NIST’s core science and technical programs would jump to $745 million in 2016, $69 million above current levels, but $10 million below the White House request.

The new proposal is “a pro-science, fiscally responsible bill that will keep America competitive,” stated a House science committee press release. “To remain competitive, we need to make sure our priorities are funded and that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely,” Smith said in the statement, adding that the bill “funds innovative science and prioritizes taxpayer investments in basic research, without increasing overall spending.”

The committee’s top Democrat, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX), was less enthusiastic. "I am unable to provide my opinion on this legislation at the moment due to the fact that Democratic Members were given this 189-page bill at the same time as everyone else,” she said in a statement to ScienceInsider. “It is unfortunate that the Chairman has chosen not to work in a bipartisan effort on such an important part of the Committee’s work. America Competes is far too important for partisan posturing."

*Clarification, 16 April, 3:11 p.m.: The proposed funding cut to DOE's renewable energy programs has been clarified; it amounts to about one-third of the 2015 level.

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