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Senators Cory Gardner (R–CO), left, and Gary Peters (D–MI) led roundtables with science community leaders.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

Q&A: Will Senate COMPETES bill narrow partisan gap in Congress over U.S. research policy?

As a conservative Republican from the West and a liberal Democrat from the Midwest, senators Cory Gardner (R–CO) and Gary Peters (D–MI) are separated by geography and ideology. But they see eye-to-eye on the need for the federal government to strengthen its support of basic research.

In the next few weeks, the U.S. Senate is expected to begin rewriting a bill governing federal policies toward research, innovation, and science education. And if the stance that Gardner and Peters have taken is any guide, the legislation could help restore a bipartisan consensus on the topic that has been sorely lacking in Congress in recent years.

In 2007 the George W. Bush administration and congressional Democrats came together to enact The America COMPETES Act. Designed to ensure that the country remains a global leader in science, the law covered programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology, research at the Department of Energy (DOE), and interagency activities managed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. By the time the law expired in 2010, however, Republicans in the House of Representatives had grown wary of many of its provisions, and there were bitter battles over its 2-year reauthorization.

Since its expiration in 2012 (the programs it authorizes are allowed to continue unchanged), efforts to update the law have exposed a deep rift between House Republicans and the scientific community. One year ago last week, the House passed a bill (H.R. 1806) that Democrats unanimously opposed, citing provisions they said would weaken peer review at NSF and hamper its support for the social and geosciences.

The House bill so angered lobbyists for science and university groups that many believe no COMPETES bill is better than the House bill. But they are hoping the Senate will come up with compromise language that defuses the debate and allows Congress to make needed changes in other areas.

Two senators take the lead

The ball is now in the Senate’s court. Last summer Senator John Thune (R–SD), the chairman of the Senate committee on commerce, science, and transportation, asked freshmen Gardner and Peters to get input from researchers, higher education officials, and industry leaders before drafting a new COMPETES bill. And although neither senator has any background in science—Gardner holds a law degree and Peters worked as a financial adviser before entering politics—the two men have embraced the subject with the zeal of recent converts. Their collaboration on research issues goes beyond co-chairing the roundtables to include jointly sponsored bills that would improve telemedicine in rural areas and strengthen space weather forecasting.

Their collegiality may be due in part to their curiously similar political paths. Gardner, 41, and Peters, 57, were both state legislators before winning election to the House; each served only a few terms in the House before jumping to the upper body.

At an 11 May committee hearing that explored ways to leverage federal investments in research, Thune promised that the COMPETES reauthorization would be unveiled “in a matter of days.” That schedule has slipped a bit, Gardner told ScienceInsider last week, although he still expects the bill to appear before Congress goes on an extended break in July. (Meanwhile, this week the House voted along party lines to negotiate with the Senate on a broad energy policy bill by combining the DOE provisions of its COMPETES bill with several other energy-related bills passed last year. Last month the Senate approved its version of the energy legislation, S. 2012.

 Without having seen the final language in the Senate COMPETES bill, science lobbyists are reluctant to speculate on its contents. But in separate interviews last week with ScienceInsider, Gardner and Peters discussed several key issues that the legislation will address. Their comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Why do basic research?

Both men offer ringing endorsements of the government’s role in funding fundamental research. In fact, at first glance, their comments seem interchangeable.

Cory Gardner: We had a great hearing [11 March], and I think it was Kelvin Droegemeier [outgoing vice chair of the NSF board] who said that winners are found where we least expect them. And I thought, "Wow, what a great statement." There are things we do thinking we are going to find this over here, but it was this thing over there that became the big driver of new technologies.

Gary Peters: In my mind basic research should be curiosity-driven, and allowed to go where it wants to go. We don’t know what the next big thing will be. And the only way to discover it is to give researchers, driven by curiosity and often pursuing a hunch, the opportunity to pursue those ideas.

Listen more closely, however, and a potentially significant difference emerges. For Gardner, basic research should lead to improvements in the health and welfare of the populace. In other words, if taxpayers can’t readily see the payoff, then it shouldn’t be funded. Peters would give scientists a longer leash, but not simply because the ultimate payoff from basic research is sometimes unknowable. Rather, he argues that more knowledge about the natural world is intrinsically valuable.

C.G.: So it comes back to what the American people are going to say about the science, and the mission of the National Science Foundation, and what these agencies are targeted to do. And if the American people are unhappy with the direction that they are taking, then that’s going to cause a problem with continuing that line of work. … 

We’re not just researching things to spend the money. We are researching things because we hope we will find a life-saving advance, or something that will change the world as we know it. And that’s what the American people need to be able to see through the transparency and accountability we’ve built into the legislation.

G.P.: No, I don’t think that some disciplines are more important than others. And I think that’s a dangerous, slippery slope to go down, because you don’t know where the research will lead. 

Some might say we should only support research that can help boost the economy. But in response, I like to cite an example in my home state of Michigan, where some researchers at the University of Michigan were studying the electrical fields on Mars to help NASA prepare for both robotic and human missions to Mars. Now, what has happened is that they’ve formed a company in Ann Arbor that is using some of that knowledge to help electric utility companies manage their grid. So this science for planetary missions turned out to have real-world applications. But to try to anticipate that usage would have been impossible.

The difference may be subtle, but it is important in the current political climate. A major bone of contention in the House COMPETES bill was how to interpret the phrase “research in the national interest.” Democrats accused Republicans of using it as a litmus test to exclude research—including work on climate change and across the social and behavioral sciences—that failed to conform to their personal ideology. Republicans defended the language as a common-sense provision that has been around since NSF was created in 1950.

Q: How much research is enough?

An authorization bill expresses the will of Congress, and its funding levels are often higher than the actual cash delivered by another set of committees that appropriate the money. The House COMPETES bill broke from that tradition, however, by proposing authorizations in 2016 for 2017 that were essentially level to what NSF and DOE science received in 2015.

Gardner suggested that the Senate was prepared to do much better than the House. Although he said that fiscal constraints could limit the actual number, he noted that the Senate energy bill would give DOE science an annual boost of 5% through 2020. (The bill did not cover NSF.) Peters says increasing the amount of federally funded basic research is one of his priorities. 

C.G.: We have a responsibility to be responsible stewards of tax dollars. But if you look at what we were able to do in the energy COMPETES bill, there is precedent for [a healthy increase]. At the same time, we’re going to have to make sure it has the support of 60 senators, so it can get through the Senate and onto the president’s desk. So the money part of it is something we will continue to work on.

G.P.: I think we underinvest in basic research. I’ve called for the government to spend 1% of GDP [gross domestic product] on research. Right now it’s about 0.7%. And in going from 0.7% to 1%, I would put a heavy emphasis on basic research.

Q: What needs to be done to improve science education and broaden participation?

Education was a major focus of the original COMPETES Act. An influential 2005 report by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine had argued for the importance of training 10,000 new science and math teachers at the elementary and secondary school level “to educate 10 million minds.” And STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education continues to attract bipartisan support.

The current COMPETES bills aim to improve coordination of the federal government’s $3-billion-a-year investment in STEM education across more than 100 programs at several agencies. Gardner says the committee has discussed creating a new outside advisory council to the current intragovernmental committee on STEM education, so industry and academic leaders could have a larger voice in shaping federal policies. Peters believes that universities need to pay more attention to improving STEM education in the earliest grades, on topics ranging from teacher training to curriculum development. He also wants them join with the federal government to strengthen efforts aimed at attracting more women and minorities into science.

C.G.: We’re thinking of creating a board of experts across the sectors of industry, to identify successful programs and to make recommendations about programs that are working and aren’t working. From what we understand about participation by women and minorities, we need to do a better job of exposing people early in their careers to STEM fields.   

G.P.: Part of the problem relates to outreach to young people, even into the elementary schools, to get students excited about STEM. And you’re also seeing a change in pedagogy, more hands-on approach. And sometimes you don’t get that opportunity until later on. We have to actually get into what is happening in our schools. And that’s hard to do, because we have such a decentralized system of education in America.

These ideas are embedded in the Next Generation Science Standards, a state-based, private-sector initiative that both Peters and Gardner say they support. But neither Michigan nor Colorado has adopted the standards to date, and neither man thinks the federal government should be playing a direct role in their implementation.

C.G.: That’s up to Colorado. That’s not something we should make a decision [on] here. Would they be smart to use it? Yeah, they would.

G.P.: It will be up to the states, but legislators like me can talk to state officials and state legislators to try and make some of those changes. And you have to be very diplomatic.

Q: How can more academic research be commercialized?

Whatever their rationale for supporting basic research, both men think the country needs to do a better job of turning academic discoveries into new products and services. One of the government’s chief tools is the 34-year-old Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, funded by a tax on agencies’ research budgets that some researchers feel is excessive. Earlier this month, for example, the Senate small business panel on which Peters sits voted to nearly double the set-aside over the next decade.

The commerce committee has discussed ways to grow SBIR without increasing the set-aside. One idea under consideration is finding other sources of funding; another is a differential structure for taxing individual agencies.

C.G.: We’re trying to find new ways to address that challenge. For example, we’ve got an approach to SBIR that would say, “If you’ve got a technology that will save the government money, like reducing Medicare costs, then you should take a portion of those savings and put them back into the SBIR research program.” And putting that money into SBIR would give scientists the incentive to do more commercialization.

G.P.: I know some of the universities have pushed back on the SBIR bill, thinking it cuts into basic research. But at the same time they want their professors to become more involved in commercialization, and that happens through SBIR.

As for the set-aside, I think we need to revisit that number before it gets to the floor. Right now it’s flat across every agency. But NSF has a different mission than the Department of Defense. And I’m open to having a discussion about what that level should be, and whether it should vary by agency.

Q: What can be done to ease the administrative burden on researchers?

University administrators are hoping the Senate bill will provide some relief for what they regard as excessive government regulations that come with federal research dollars. Their wish list covers everything from the amount of time devoted to applying for a grant and reporting on the outcomes to telling the government how the institution tracks potential conflicts of interest by faculty members.

A report last year from the U.S. National Academies—requested by Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN) and other legislators involved in crafting previous COMPETES bills—recommended several changes, and Gardner and Peters appear very sympathetic to those arguments. Still, the arcane nature of the issue invites confusion.

The most common mistake is mischaracterizing the frequently cited finding that 42% of the time a faculty member charges to a federal grant is spent on administrative tasks, a category that includes supervision of students and postdocs and writing up the results of their research. (Gardner and Peters each wrongly cited that figure as representing the percentage of federal research dollars spent on paperwork rather than on science.) And both men agree any reforms must not weaken accountability.

G.P.: What came up a lot with the community is the administrative burden, and the fact that researchers are spending too much time doing paperwork to apply for and maintain their grants. We need to have a more streamlined process than we have now. Especially when we’re not spending enough on basic research, we shouldn’t be having researchers spend so much time on the grants process.

C.G.: The other big thing is how to eliminate the cost of compliance. We’ve heard over and over that 42% of every research grant gets spent on bureaucracy, overhead and paperwork, reporting, and those things. The National Academies recently did a report containing some ideas that we’ve tried to incorporate into the bill.

Science lobbyists and others will soon find out how closely the views of Gardner and Peters reflect the official legislative language put forward by Thune. That’s when the debate over a new COMPETES law will truly kick into high gear.