Read our COVID-19 research and news.



This story is the fifth in ScienceInsider’s After Election 2014 series. Through Election Day on 4 November, we will periodically examine research issues that will face U.S. lawmakers when they return to Washington, D.C., for a lame-duck session and when a new Congress convenes in January. Click here to see all the stories published so far; click here for a list of published and planned stories.

Today, a look at how to break the current deadlock over a road map for the National Science Foundation.

The axiom that federal funding for research enjoys bipartisan support will be sorely tested next year as the U.S. Congress tries to reauthorize major legislation governing federal policies on research and science education. And although voters rarely ask candidates about research, the results of next month’s election could have a major impact on the bill’s fate.

Science lobbyists had hoped that the current Congress (the 113th) would extend the America COMPETES Act, which expired last year. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, the two congressional committees with “science” in their titles have taken diametrically opposed approaches in proposing revisions to the 2010 COMPETES law, which renewed and extended a 2007 version that focused on strengthening federal support for the physical sciences and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.

In the Democrat-controlled Senate, Senator John “Jay” Rockefeller (D–WV), who chairs the commerce and science committee, earlier this year introduced S. 2757, which seeks to tweak but not dramatically transform COMPETES. In the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), head of the science, space, and technology panel, has pushed H.R. 4186, which would make a distinct departure from current practice.

The bills mirror the two parties’ divergent views on such issues as trust in the federal government and its role in addressing societal problems, as well as on spending priorities in a time of fiscal restraint. Scientific leaders overwhelmingly favor Rockefeller’s approach, and many have publicly condemned what Smith wants to do. Some even say that no bill would be better than what they regard as a bad bill.

The Senate: Extending the endless frontier

Rockefeller would like to bolster a vision for U.S. science first defined by Vannevar Bush in his 1945 report Science: The Endless Frontier. The vision provides universities with funding to do the lion’s share of the country’s basic research; in return, universities agree to train the nation’s scientific workforce. As part of that long-running partnership, Rockefeller would like Congress to deliver on its promises in the 2007 and 2010 versions of the COMPETES Act to double the budgets of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science. He would also continue outreach and education activities at several federal agencies.

With regard to NSF, the growth would apply to all fields that the foundation supports, including the social sciences. Rockefeller also would preserve the current system of peer review at NSF.

Overall, the bill sets 5-year spending targets that neither Congress nor the White House is likely to meet. But those aspirational goals send a clear message that the agencies deserve additional resources because their work contributes to a vibrant economy and the nation’s well-being. The bill, introduced in late July, has yet to be taken up by the committee. (In March, House Democrats on the committee introduced their own bill, H.R. 4159, which closely tracks the Senate version.)

The House: Will FIRST do no harm?

Smith describes a different vision of federal support for science in his bill, which his committee approved in late May after a rocky, 13-month trip.

The journey began in April 2013, when Smith circulated a draft of another bill, called the High Quality Research Act. Several Republicans had complained about some of the grants NSF had awarded, and the bill would have altered NSF’s criteria for funding grant proposals. Smith insisted that he was not trying to alter peer review itself and that he simply wanted to make sure NSF spent its money on the highest priority research.

Even so, the draft ignited a firestorm of criticism. Scientific organizations saw the proposal as political meddling with the time-honored practice of using experts to choose the best research ideas. White House science adviser John Holdren went out of his way to attack it, and three former NSF directors urged the committee to rethink its approach.

In the midst of a protracted fight with NSF officials over giving committee staff access to confidential supporting materials on a handful of specific grants that shows no signs of easing, Smith last fall inserted a watered-down version of those provisions into a draft of his reauthorization bill. But that bill, called the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act, contains several other elements that have enraged most scientists.

For starters, it would authorize NSF programs for only 1 year, at spending levels only marginally above current budgets. The bill also makes deep cuts in funding for the social sciences and spells out how much money NSF should allocate to each of its six research directorates. Those provisions reinforce his view that, when budgets are tight, federal agencies need to set priorities. However, many scientists heard a different message: Research isn’t important, and NSF can’t be trusted to make the right decisions.

Instead of a broad reauthorization like COMPETES, FIRST is focused on NSF, NIST, and provisions related to federal innovation and education policy. Smith dealt with energy and climate-related research at DOE in a separate measure, H.R. 4869, introduced in June. (Democrats blocked an initial attempt by the committee’s energy panel to mark up the bill this summer, and no further action on it has taken place.)

Playing a new hand

It is unlikely that either bill will advance before the current session of Congress ends sometime in December. (Legislators return in mid-November after having taken a 2-month election recess.) So legislators will have to reintroduce them in the next session. Sometimes that process simply resets the game clock. But this time it could be a new game.

If Republicans win control of the Senate, as many pundits are predicting, then Senator John Thune (R–SD) is expected to become chair of the commerce and science committee. He hasn’t taken a position on the COMPETES reauthorization, although he has gone to bat for a proposed underground research facility in his home state.

Of potentially equal importance is the fact that Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN) is in line to lead the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Alexander told the panel in November 2013 at a hearing on COMPETES that Congress should “finish the job” by doubling the budgets of all three agencies. Alexander also has a passion for education, having served as education secretary under President George H. W. Bush. Although he is not a member of the commerce committee, the Senate’s more permeable jurisdictional boundaries should give Alexander the opportunity to play a major role in advancing a new COMPETES reauthorization bill.

Even if the Democrats manage to hold on to the majority, Rockefeller will be gone, having retired from a 30-year Senate career. Senators Jack Reed (D–RI) and Bill Nelson (D–FL) are next in line by seniority to become chair of the science panel. But Reed is likely to succeed retiring Senator Carl Levin (D–MI) as head of the armed services committee, opening the door for Nelson. A former astronaut, Nelson chairs the science panel’s research subcommittee and has been a strong supporter of research during a combined 26 years of service in the House and the Senate.

Nobody expects Republicans to lose control of the House, and Smith—who faces only token opposition in his district—is expected to retain his chairmanship. But Republican control of the Senate doesn’t necessarily mean a cakewalk for the FIRST Act. The two bodies have a long history of disagreeing on legislation, even when the same political party runs both.

Regardless of what happens in Congress, the Obama administration will remain in office for 2 more years. The White House isn’t likely to be any more sympathetic this time around to Smith’s ideas on research and STEM policy. So expect the battle over a reauthorization bill to continue.

ScienceInsider’s After Election 2014 series will look at a range of issues that will be on policymakers’ agenda once the voters have spoken on 4 November. Look for stories on: