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Senator Jay Rockefeller (D–WV)

Senator Jay Rockefeller (D–WV)

U.S. Senate

Senate bill backs NSF's practices and calls for big funding boost

Taking issue with its counterpart in the U.S. House of Representatives, a Senate panel has embraced how the National Science Foundation (NSF) does its business in a bill that sets policies and recommends funding levels for NSF over the next 5 years.

The proposed legislation, released Friday afternoon in draft form by the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, calls on Congress to increase NSF’s budget by nearly 40%, to $9.9 billion, by 2019. It also endorses NSF’s current policies for reviewing grant proposals and—in sharp contrast to a House bill—emphasizes the importance of the social sciences as part of a balanced research portfolio.

“[T]he Federal science agencies should receive sustained and steady growth in funding for research and development activities, including basic research, across a wide range of disciplines, including … [the] social, behavioral, and economic sciences,” declares the 146-page Senate bill, titled the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2014. The legislation, which sets policies affecting research programs at NSF and the National Institute of Standards and Technology as well as science education activities across the federal government, would replace the 2010 America COMPETES Act, which expired last year.

The Senate language strikes a much more supportive tone than a bill passed in May by the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. That bill questions how NSF manages its research grants and takes an especially dim view of the social and behavioral sciences. The House bill, called the FIRST Act, has been denounced by the U.S. academic community and leading scientific organizations.

The chair of the commerce committee, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D–WV) didn’t mince words in explaining why he felt his bill was better for science—and the country—than what was moving through the House. “We’ve seen proposals that would let Congress decide what research projects are worthwhile,” he said in opening a hearing Thursday. “Having served on this committee and worked with the Senate Science and Technology Caucus, I know that scientists through grant competitions and peer review are best able to make those decisions.”

As is his habit, Rockefeller then dipped into history. “On his deathbed in 1969, former President Dwight Eisenhower told a friend that, in his experience, scientists ‘were one of the few groups in Washington who seemed to be there to help the country and not help themselves.’ Our House colleagues who would substitute their own opinions for those of the scientific community would be wise to remember President Eisenhower’s words.”

Here are some key provisions of the Senate bill, which is expected to be introduced shortly.

  • Funding: NSF’s current budget of $7.17 billion would grow by 6.7% each year, reaching $9.9 billion in 2019. In contrast, the House bill extends only to 2015 and proposes spending $7.27 billion in that year. The Senate bill would also leave it up to NSF officials to allocate those funds across the agency’s six research directorates. The House bill, in contrast, sets specific targets for each directorate—an approach that most scientists view as micromanaging the agency—and would shrink the social, behavioral, and economic sciences directorate from $256 million this year to $150 million in 2015.

  • Peer review: The Senate bill tells NSF to continue using its twin criteria—intellectual merit and broader impacts—to judge the merit of proposed research. In contrast, the House bill would add another step to the peer-review process by requiring NSF officials to certify that the grant to be awarded addresses an area of importance to the nation. Most scientists agree with Rockefeller that imposing such a requirement gives politicians too large a voice in the process.  

  • Science education: Both the Senate and House bills urge the federal government to do a better job of coordinating and assessing its $3 billion investment in programs that support STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education from grade school through graduate school. The bills also emphasize the value of having mission agencies like NASA continue to support training and public outreach activities—a jab at last year’s failed attempt by the Obama administration to designate NSF, the Department of Education, and the Smithsonian Institution as the three lead agencies for STEM education.

In addition, the Senate bill would give the Education Department, working with NSF, the authority to fund states that want to create so-called STEM secondary schools.

  • Commercialization: Both the Senate and House bills laud NSF’s 3-year-old Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program, which teaches researchers how to take a basic research discovery to market. The Senate bill invites the NSF director to work with other federal research agencies to give researchers they fund access to the I-Corps program. The National Institutes of Health has recently launched its own version of the I-Corps curriculum.

Given the short and crowded legislative calendar in both bodies, few observers expect the Senate or House to complete action on their reauthorization bills before the November election. That means it won’t be until a lame-duck session, or next year, before the two bodies have a chance to reconcile their conflicting visions for NSF.