John Holdren at a White House event earlier this year.

John Holdren at a White House event earlier this year.

NASA/FLICKR (CC BY-NC 2.0)

President’s science adviser attacks COMPETES bill in U.S. House, raises concern about NASA bill

The president’s science adviser today criticized science policy legislation moving through the U.S. House of Representatives, hinting that his boss would veto the two bills if they ever reached his desk.

Speaking at the annual Forum on Science and Technology Policy sponsored by AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider), John Holdren had harsh words for the America COMPETES Act approved last week by the House science committee. He also expressed concern about a bill being marked up today by the science committee to reauthorize NASA programs. It’s the first comment on either bill by the White House, which typically refrains from taking an official position on legislation until it is scheduled for a vote by the full House or Senate.

“In my personal opinion, the COMPETES bill as it now stands is bad for science, it’s bad for scientists and engineers, bad for the federal science agencies, and damaging to the world-leading U.S. scientific enterprise,” Holdren told the Washington, D.C., audience.

The COMPETES bill has been widely assailed by the U.S. scientific community since a truncated version first appeared 2 years ago. The panel’s chair, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), has said he took that criticism to heart in drafting the current bill, which is meant to succeed a 2007 law, extended in 2010, that expired in 2013.

Holdren indirectly acknowledged some of those changes in his comments. But he made it clear that he thinks the bill, which would significantly reduce authorized funding levels for the social and earth sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and make changes in NSF’s grantsmaking process, is still seriously flawed.

“The introductory language is great, but the contents are less great,” Holdren explained. “The bill singles out for quite aggressive cuts at NSF’s social and behavioral sciences. Some in Congress appear to believe that social and behavioral science is not really science, despite the 1950 organic act makes clear that progress in all fields of science, including the social and behavioral sciences, is the foundation’s mission.”

“The bill also makes quite substantial cuts in the earth sciences. There are some in Congress who question whether earth science is really science,” he said. “I find that quite bizarre.”

Challenges at NASA

Holdren was more restrained in discussing the NASA reauthorization, which the panel began marking up at 11 a.m., barely 1 hour after Holdren ended his talk. At 1:36 p.m., the committee passed the bill (H.R. 2039) on a straight party-line vote of 19 to 15.

“Another challenge is to how reconcile the administration and congressional priorities for NASA,” Holdren noted. “I’ve long said that the big problem with NASA is that it is trying to fit 20 pounds of missions into a 10-pound budget. NASA has an enormously diverse array of responsibilities … and its $18 billion budget, which may seem large, has never been enough to do what is desirable in all those domains.” But Holdren said the proposed legislation’s proposed large cut in authorized funding levels for the agency’s earth sciences program “is not the direction we need to be going.”

Speaking to ScienceInsider after his talk, Holdren said that he would welcome a chance to talk with Republican legislators about making changes in the bill. “My hope is that we’ll find room for compromise. But it’s going to take a lot of work.” He declined to say whether he would prefer to see no bill enacted rather than the current legislation, but acknowledged that “there are good things that would be lost” if the bills were not adopted.

*Clarification, 30 April, 2:50 p.m.: This story has been updated to clarify that today was the first time the White House commented on the COMPETES bill.

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