COMPETES Funding Update: The Senate Gets Involved

The Senate committee's new proposal is more generous to NSF and NIST than what has appeared in the House.

Update: the bill was formally introduced on July 31.

To recap the story so far: the America COMPETES Act, first passed in 2007 and reauthorized in 2010, established multiyear authorizations — in other words, funding targets, though not actual funding — for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Department of Energy Office of Science (DOE Science). The last COMPETES iteration is now expired, and Congress has been grappling with a new bill to replace it. That task has been contentious in the House, with dueling proposals from Republicans and Democrats. The much-discussed FIRST Act, which includes only NSF and NIST, won out in committee, but faces long odds of continued progress (see past coverage here and here). In response, House legislators have broken out and passed pieces of the bill individually, including one measure (HR 5035) that deals with NIST funding. That measure sailed through earlier this week, but the NSF question has yet to be dealt with by the full House. DOE Science has been kept in a separate bill entirely, though that bill faces its own challenges.

Into this rather fractured context, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee has unveiled its own COMPETES proposal, in the form of a discussion draft. Like the FIRST Act, the Senate bill has several policy provisions, but only deals with NIST and NSF on the funding front (see ScienceInsider for a general summary). A comparison is below. This post will be updated if the numbers change when the bill is formally introduced.

Authorization term. Like the House Democrats' version, the Senate draft provides authorizations from FY 2015 through FY 2019. The FIRST Act, on the other hand, only provided authorizations for FY 2014 and FY 2015. As Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) noted in a FIRST Act markup, the oddity here is that FY 2014 appropriations were completed months ago, and there are in fact only a couple months left in the fiscal year.

Funding levels. The Senate draft authorizes average annual increases for NSF and NIST at about 6.7 percent, representing a significant growth path even accounting for inflation. These increases would certainly top recent appropriations. For context, annual increases for NSF have averaged 2.2 percent before inflation over the past five years, while NIST has averaged only 1 percent. The Senate targets are also higher than the numbers granted by appropriators so far this summer.

By comparison, the latest House numbers only authorize sub-inflation increases of less than 1 percent in FY 2015 (though the House Science Committee also proposed a 5 percent increase for DOE Office of Science in separate legislation). The Senate proposal is also higher than the 4.9 percent annual increases proposed by the House Democrats for NSF and NIST.

The Senate bill also departs from the FIRST Act in that it does not establish funding targets by NSF directorate. The FIRST Act would have taken this step, cutting social science funding in the process (see chart).

The longer the doubling is delayed, the more it will be offset by inflation, and a faster doubling is more meaningful in "real" dollars.

Doubling path. Doubling the budgets for NSF, NIST labs, and DOE Science was a major goal of the original COMPETES Act. The original bill sought a doubling from FY 2006 levels by FY 2013. In response to lagging appropriations, the 2010 reauthorization set a doubling target by FY 2017. The Senate proposal would again push back the doubling by a few years: NSF and NIST labs budgets would double from FY 2006 levels by roughly FY 2021, a couple years ahead of the schedule proposed by the House Democrats. Thus, the Senate bill would bear out Sen. Lamar Alexander's (R-TN) exhortation that Congress "finish the job" established in the original bill.

By comparison, the most recent House figures for NIST and NSF don't prioritize doubling. Again, it's worth noting that DOE Science would have been on a path to double by roughly FY 2022 under the separate energy legislation mentioned above, 

The teal line in the above graph illustrates the point at which NSF and NIST labs would be double their FY 2006 budgets. It may seem odd that the target declines over time, but this is for a simple reason: inflation. The target has always been discussed in nominal dollars, but the above chart employs constant dollars. Thus, the line declines over time due to inflation's eroding influence. Another way to think about this: the longer the "doubling" is delayed, the more it will be offset by inflation, and a faster doubling is more meaningful in "real" dollars.

As a share of the economy. The chart at right depicts NIST and NSF budgets as a share of gross domestic product. As mentioned in a previous post, the House Democrats' funding plan is the minimal necessary to ensure NSF and NIST keep pace with broader economic growth. Thus, the Senate draft bill is the lone proposal that would allow both agencies to grow faster than the rest of the economy.

What's next? The bill must be formally introduced before it can move to a committee markup. With the midterm elections looming, it's unlikely the Senate will be able to make much progress on COMPETES in the near term, and the House and Senate will eventually have a tall order reaching agreement given the vastly different proposals offered so far. And whether appropriators will ultimately be able to fulfill a plan as ambitious as the Senate draft is also an open question.