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FIRST Up: Lawmakers to Examine Bill Renewing U.S. Research

Hang on to your lab goggles. The haggling over a big chunk of U.S. science policy is picking up steam in Washington.

This morning, the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives will kick off discussion of competing proposals to renew and reshape science and education programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and other federal funding agencies. Lawmakers on the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology are expected to hear praise for, and complaints about, bills put forward by the panel’s Republican majority and Democratic minority.

Areas of contention are likely to include proposals to change how NSF evaluates grant proposals and “open-access” provisions that would allow scientific publishers to keep papers produced with government funding behind paywalls for up to 3 years. But there appears to be broad, bipartisan support for plans to bolster efforts to commercialize discoveries made with government funding, and to revamp federal computing research programs.

The flurry of legislative activity is focused on replacing the 2010 America COMPETES Act, which expired at the end of September. Although many of COMPETE’s goals enjoyed bipartisan support, this year’s effort to replace it has been marked by diverging legislative strategies and philosophical rifts among Republicans and Democrats, the House and the Senate, and various elements of the research community.

Some of those differences may surface at today’s hearing, which will focus on a House Republican draft bill called the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act. FIRST does not address all the programs that were included in COMPETES. It does not include Department of Energy research, for instance, which Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), the head of the House science panel, wants to address in a separate bill. And FIRST differs markedly from a Democratic alternative introduced last month that hews more closely to the COMPETES mold.

In addition to concerns about some of FIRST’s NSF provisions, some university and research lobbyists have voiced doubts about the bill’s provisions on providing free access to scholarly papers based on government-funded research. At the moment, the White House is in the midst of a process that is encouraging agencies to develop open-access policies that would make government-backed papers freely available to the public within 1 year of publication. That guideline is the result of years of conflict and negotiations among publishers, funders, and researchers on how to provide access without harming business models that fund many journals and societies.

FIRST, however, would extend the open-access deadline to 2 years after a paper’s publication , or up to 3 years if an agency determines that a scientific field would be “uniquely harmed without such extension.”

That idea “is ludicrous,” writes Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, which supports shorter embargo periods, in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. “It is completely out of line with any of the dozens of other successful policies in effect globally, and would put the U.S. light years behind the rest of the word in terms of policies supporting innovation and competitiveness. … [I]t is shameful to call it a proposed ‘open access' policy. The serious conversations that are happening about embargo periods after all this time are about how to make them as *short* as possible to maximize benefits to the public -- not about locking content down further.”

A trade group for major publishers, however, says the extension might make sense in some cases. The Association of American Publishers (AAP) “has always emphasized the need for flexibility with embargoes,” writes Andi Sporkin, an AAP spokesperson, in an e-mail. “We have articulated that position to Members of Congress among many others – all those who’ll listen.” And although the group says it would prefer to set open-access guidelines through the current White House process rather than legislation, “we are appreciative that Chairman Smith understands and supports the importance of flexibility.”

Less controversial is a provision that calls on the White House to set up a new advisory panel that would study how best to organize and coordinate the federal government’s $3 billion STEM (science, technology, education, and mathematics) education portfolio. The bill would also block the White House from implementing many of the controversial proposals it made to reorganize STEM education programs in its 2014 budget request to Congress.

Another FIRST proposal is drawing widespread, bipartisan support. Dubbed “Innovative Approaches to Technology Transfer,” it would provide grants of up to $3 million over 3 years to universities, federal laboratories, and other research institutes to jump-start efforts to commercialize federally funded discoveries. The plan, originally introduced in Congress as a bipartisan bill called the TRANSFER Act (H.R. 2981), would require major research funding agencies to earmark 0.05% of their grant budgets in 2014 and 2015 for the grants; the pot would grow to 0.1% of extramural funding in 2016 and 2017.

That stream of money could “help to solve an intractable problem in technology transfer” by helping fund early-stage commercialization projects, a coalition of university groups wrote earlier this year in a letter to Smith expressing their support. “Not only will it encourage translational research that will better prepare discoveries for the marketplace, it will also urge research institutions and individual investigators to collaborate with industry and more fully incorporate considerations of commercial viability into their research enterprise.”

There is also strong bipartisan backing for FIRST’s plan to revamp federal computing research. The provisions, which include a call for a new strategic plan on information technology R&D, were originally spelled out in a bill (H.R. 967) that passed the House last April on a 406-11 vote

Those popular provisions, however, aren’t likely to be enough persuade most House Democrats to support FIRST, and the process of reauthorizing COMPETES is likely to be long and contentious. The Senate’s science committee, meanwhile, has just begun to develop its version of COMPETES reauthorization, holding a first hearing last week.