Senate COMPETES With House on Priorities for NSF

A key Senate panel yesterday approved its version of a bill to reauthorize programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF). The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act (S.3605) reflects the interests of the panel's chair, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D–WV), in a broader geographic distribution of federal research grants, and those of ranking member Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R–TX) in reforming undergraduate science and engineering education. At the same time, in an effort to win bipartisan support and hold down costs, it contains few new initiatives and would run for only 3 years.

"I think it's a very good bill," Hutchison told ScienceInsider shortly after the panel gave its unanimous approval. "My only concern is the authorization levels. I think that's what might keep us from bringing it to the floor. But it is a priority for me."

Rockefeller indicated that he's willing to deal. "I like the authorization levels," he said after the vote. "Maybe they'll have to come down a bit. Sometimes you take what you can get. What I want is [passage of] the bill."

The House of Representatives successfully walked that political tightrope this spring in passing its reauthorization bill (H.R. 5116). Its enactment is a top priority for Representative Bart Gordon (D–TN), the retiring chair of the House science committee. Accordingly, Gordon bowed to pressure from Republicans and conservative Democrats to shrink the scope and length of the legislation, which covers activities at NSF, the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, other innovation programs at the Department of Commerce, and science-education programs across several agencies. Rockefeller also shrank the authorization levels for NSF contained in the first draft of the bill before bringing it to a vote, matching the 2011 number to the agency's 2011 request and then raising it by 10% and 8%, respectively, in 2012 and 2013.

At the same time, Rockefeller is swimming in a smaller pond. In the Senate, unlike the House, the bill covers activities that fall within the jurisdiction of three committees: Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which Rockefeller chairs; Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, chaired by Senator Thomas Harkin (D–IA); and Energy and Natural Resources, led by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D–NM). So the bill approved unanimously by the science panel yesterday excludes DOE programs, which are outside its purview, and some education activities. Senate aides say the other panels have already written their contributions to the bill and plan to include them once—or if—the bill moves to the Senate floor.

The bill gives Rockefeller a chance to tell NSF what it should focus on. At the top of his list is the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which sets aside research money for 27 states that win the smallest slices of NSF's grants pie. Although the 28-year-old program is supposed to help states "graduate" once they become research powerhouses, that has rarely happened. In fact, the bill laments this continued concentration of resources and tells NSF that EPSCoR's budget "shall continue to increase" in step with the overall NSF budget.

The bill's only new program comes courtesy of Hutchison, who wants NSF to begin a $10-million-a-year effort to prepare science and engineering majors to be elementary and secondary school teachers. It's modeled after the successful UTeach program at her home state's University of Texas, Austin. To ease the fiscal bite, the bill would require a significant contribution from each university grantee (up to 75% by the end of the 5-year grant).