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As part of its call for increased funding for the Department of Energy, the Senate version of COMPETES would boost spending on basic energy research.

As part of its call for increased funding for the Department of Energy, the Senate version of COMPETES would boost spending on basic energy research.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Bipartisan Senate coalition calls for boost in energy research

Three Republican and four Democratic senators introduced a bill on Wednesday that would give the Department of Energy (DOE) the authority to grow its science programs by 4% a year over the next 5 years. Although the bill's sponsors say that sets the stage for doubling DOE’s science budget, including that of the agency’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), at that rate the doubling would take more than 17 years. Still, the bill is more generous than a corresponding bill passed this week by the House of Representatives to authorize a host of research programs at DOE, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and other agencies.

"Governing is about setting priorities, and this legislation will put us on a path to double basic energy research—one of the best ways to keep good paying jobs from going overseas," said Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN) in a statement. The bill was introduced into the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which is chaired by Lisa Murkowski (R–AK), who co-sponsored the bill.

The bill would be part of the Senate version of the renewal of the American COMPETES Act, bipartisan legislation that was passed in 2007 and reauthorized in 2010 and that aimed to bolster U.S. capabilities in the physical sciences. The 2007 law was drafted in response to Rising Above the Gathering Storm, an influential report from the U.S. National Academies that warned the United States would lose its economic edge if it did not invest more in such research.

The original COMPETES established ARPA-E to quickly develop the best ideas from basic energy research into budding technologies. (Its first funds arrived in 2009.) It also called for annual budget increases topping 10% for DOE’s Office of Science, NSF, and NIST. Such increases would have doubled the agencies' budgets in 7 years, in keeping with what Gathering Storm recommended. In reality, however, since 2007, the Office of Science budget has grown by just one-third—from $3.84 billion to $5.07 billion—or by an average of 4% per year.

The new bill calls for maintaining such relatively modest growth over the next 5 years. Although that may not sound impressive, the bill conveys a positive message given the current frigid budget climate, says Michael Lubell, a lobbyist with the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C. "At least it's saying that if the rest of the government [budget] is going to be held flat, we should still spend more on energy research," Lubell says.

But even the modest increases may not come to pass. Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Appropriations’ own subcommittee passed a spending bill for fiscal year 2016, which begins 1 October, that would give the Office of Science just a 1.5% increase. Alexander chairs the subcommittee that authored that bill.

Still, the Senate bill is more munificent than the House's version of COMPETES, which looks out only 2 years. Co-sponsored by Lamar Smith (R–TX) and other members of the Republican majority on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and passed by a largely partisan vote, the House bill would give the Office of Science a 5.3% boost next year but hold its budget flat the following year. It would cut ARPA-E's budget by half, to $140 million. The House bill would also slash spending on DOE's energy efficiency and renewable energy program and would prohibit the federal government from using the results of DOE-funded research in setting policy—a move that Lubell calls "nuts." The House bill has already drawn a veto threat from the White House.

Unlike the 189-page House bill, the 14-page Senate bill sticks mainly to the budget numbers and deals only the DOE science. Bills dealing with the other agencies covered in COMPETES would have to come from other Senate committees. However, Alexander's bill could move through the Senate even if those other bills don't materialize. Murkowski's committee is working on a broader package of energy legislation, and the bill could be rolled into it, says one Republican Senate aide: "It's ripe for inclusion." Or Murkowski's committee could move the bill on its own, the aide says.

The other co-sponsors are Democratic senators Chris Coons of Delaware, Maria Cantwell of Washington state, Dianne Feinstein of California, and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, along with Republican Cory Gardner of Colorado.