Innovation banner

Thomas Hawk/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Update: Surprise! Innovation bill clears House, heads to president

This afternoon the U.S. House of Representatives passed the compromise version of S. 3084, meaning that it will soon become law. The surprising turn ends a 4-year odyssey for legislation that triggered a bitter partisan battle over how the National Science Foundation (NSF) manages its $7 billion research portfolio.

The last step came after House members had gone home for the holidays—but left themselves a parliamentary loophole through which to pass unoffending legislation. That allowed a recently negotiated compromise between the House and Senate versions of the bill (see story, below) to make its way onto the House floor today. Representative Barry Loudermilk (R–GA) introduced the measure, and though no actual vote was taken, the bill was deemed passed by unanimous consent.

“This bill maximizes the nation’s investment in basic research, and helps boost U.S. competitiveness, creates jobs and spurs new business and industries,” said Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), who chairs the House science committee, in a statement issued shortly after the vote. “It improves accountability and transparency, reduces administrative burden on researchers, enhances agency oversight, which improves research coordination, and reforms federal science agency programs to increase the impact of taxpayer-funded research.”

The top Democrat on the science committee, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), hinted at the work it took to complete the bill. “I did not always believe we would arrive at this agreement,” Johnson said in a statement. “The partisan and widely criticized House-passed version of an America Competes Act Reauthorization (H.R. 1806) was miles apart from the widely supported bipartisan Senate bill. The version of S. 3084 before us today represents what we can achieve when all parties agree to listen to each other, and perhaps more importantly, to the experts in the agencies and the stakeholder communities.” 

The Association of American Universities, a Washington, D.C.–based coalition of 62 research universities, captured the surprising finale with a statement from its president, Mary Sue Coleman: “With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Congress has come through and passed the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act. We applaud this bipartisan action. This was a case in which a legislative process that carefully balanced competing interests and took into account the input provided by the university community was rewarded with enactment of good legislation.”

The bill now goes to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it. It will replace a 2010 reauthorization that expired in 2013.

Here is our earlier story, published on 12 December:

In the predawn hours Saturday, the U.S. Senate passed a bill to bolster innovation and research activities at NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and various research and education programs managed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (see earlier story below).

The legislation’s bipartisan appeal allowed it to win unanimous approval shortly before the Senate adjourned for the year after passing a spending bill that freezes agency budgets through April 2017 and avoided a government shutdown. But procedural objections by one senator prevented the Senate from acting quickly enough to send the bill to the House of Representatives before its members left town last Thursday.

That means the bill won’t be going to President Barack Obama’s desk to be signed into law. Still, supporters are hoping that the hard-fought compromise serves as a template for quick action after the new Congress convenes in January 2017.

“This legislation represents a bipartisan and bicameral approach to boosting innovation and maximizing scientific research opportunities that Congress will pick up next year,” said Senator John Thune (R–SD), who chairs the Senate commerce and science committee that crafted S. 3084, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act. “I congratulate Sen. [Cory] Gardner and Sen. [Gary] Peters for their outstanding efforts. … I also appreciate House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson for working with us to find an agreement that can pass both chambers.”

Here is our original story, published on 5 December:

Congress is poised to back NSF’s approach to research

Congress has reached a truce—and possibly a lasting settlement—in the fiercely partisan 3-year war between Republican leaders in the House of Representatives and the scientific community over how NSF should operate. The terms of the agreement, between House and Senate negotiators, may seem like minor changes. But the compromise, which the Senate could adopt as early as this week, resolves differences over how NSF should conduct peer review and manage research in ways that the agency thinks it can live with.

The battleground is a reauthorization of the 2010 America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act, which sets out policies governing NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and federal programs on innovation, manufacturing, and science and math education. Reauthorization bills don’t fund an agency, but they provide important policy guidance.

Since 2013, the House has adopted a succession of bills containing language that scientific leaders argued would have restricted NSF’s ability to support the best research. The strategy, coordinated by Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), chairman of the House science committee, over the objections of committee Democrats, included favoring some disciplines over others and linking basic research projects more tightly to improvements in health, the economy, and national security. Republicans said they were simply trying to ensure that every NSF grant serves “the national interest.” But many scientists interpreted that language to mean NSF should tilt toward funding applied research with obvious payoffs.

Their Senate counterparts, in contrast, united behind a single, bipartisan piece of legislation crafted by senators Cory Gardner (R–CO) and Gary Peters (D–MI) that scientists saw as much more supportive of the research enterprise. And it is that bill (S.3084), which was approved earlier this year by its science committee but never reached the Senate floor, that seems to have largely prevailed when legislators from both houses sat down to reconcile their different approaches.

The final text strongly endorses the two criteria NSF now uses to judge its grant applicants—the “intellectual merit” of the idea, and the “broader impacts” of the research on society. The “national interest” categories favored by Representative Smith remain in the bill—increasing economic competitiveness, advancing the health and welfare of the public, training a globally competitive workforce, strengthening national security, and enhancing partnerships between academia and industry. But they are now listed as examples of how researchers can satisfy NSF’s second criterion—broader impacts—rather than as the primary rationale for the proposed research.   

At the same time, senators bowed to their House counterparts by removing language setting any spending targets. The original Senate bill called for a 4% boost for NSF and NIST in 2018. But House leadership has banished any statements in authorization bills relating to a desired amount of future funding, in keeping with their commitment to reduce the federal deficit. So the conferenced COMPETES bill is silent on funding levels for any specific program, as well as for the agencies as a whole.

Senate leaders are hoping to win passage this week of the bill, which as of this morning had not been publicly posted on a government website. Its prospects are less clear in the House. And its status could be affected by how soon Congress adopts an extension of the spending freeze that applies to the current budgets of every agency.

Science lobbyists are still parsing the language. But some are already reacting more favorably than they did to earlier versions, which they regarded as worse than no bill at all. According to a spokesperson for the Association of American Universities based in Washington, D.C., the compromise “balances and takes into account input provided by the university community while at the same time addressing major congressional issues and concerns.”

NSF is not officially commenting on the bill. But one agency official who requested anonymity said there are no poison pills in it, and that much of the bill seems to offer support for things NSF is already doing.

The bill also addresses several issues that have spurred sharp debate in recent years. NSF’s flawed oversight of the National Ecological Observatory Network, for example, has led to tighter oversight of large facilities. Congressional displeasure with the large salaries of some academic scientists, called rotators, coming to NSF for stints of 2 to 4 years has prompted new reporting requirements. But other issues transcend the agency, like reducing the administrative burden on universities receiving federal funds, policing scientific misconduct, and allowing for travel to scientific conferences.

Here are selected provisions:

  • The bill would require a formal analysis of the proposed cost of a large facility before construction begins, and another while it is being built. Management fees are still allowed (the House had wanted to ban them), but their use must be closely monitored.
  • NSF must provide written justification for the salaries of every rotator earning more than a senior government manager in the equivalent job.
  • NSF must notify other federal agencies when it issues a finding of scientific misconduct. The bill does not say whether the notification must be made public. The language addresses concerns that such “bad apples” might be funded by another government agency.
  • A long-running program meant to help states that receive relatively few federal research dollars would become a permanent feature of NSF’s portfolio. The “E” in the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research would be changed to “established,” in recognition that few states have ever graduated out of the program.
  • An interagency working group would be created within the White House to examine ways to reduce the paperwork associated with receiving a federal research grant. It is seen as complementing a provision in medical reform bill poised to become law, the 21st Century Cures Act, that would create a Research Policy Board with the same mission.
  • The bill would require federal agencies to clarify their policies on travel to scientific conferences and workshops. It endorses the importance of allowing employees to attend scientific conferences and workshops to share their findings and foster collaborative research.