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America COMPETES Update: Innovation Bill Passes House While Senate Unveils Energy Proposal

On May 20 the House voted to approve the FY 2015 America COMPETES reauthorization bill, ending, for now, the long-running (and well-documented, thanks to ScienceInsider) House debate over the legislation. Several amendments were adopted, but only minor changes were made to the relatively unambitious funding levels approved by the Science Committee, seen here. The bill passed on a 217-205 vote, in spite of the President's veto threat.

To recap some of those amendments:

  • A manager’s amendment offered by Science Committee chair and bill sponsor Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) trimmed funding from biology, computing, and engineering research to restore the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Integrative Activities account authorization to FY 2015 levels. The account contains funding for the EPSCoR program, which assists universities in states on the low end of NSF funding.
  • An amendment offered by Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA) shifted $5 million from renewable energy and efficiency research to the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, within the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
  • While not a funding change, an amendment offered by Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) authorized the Energy Innovation Hubs program.

The charts at right show the updated funding figures overall and by NSF directorate, relatively unchanged from the committee versions.

Multiple failed Democratic amendments dealt with carbon emissions and climate research. The current bill requires the Department of Energy (DOE) Biological and Environmental Research program to deemphasize climate research in favor of biological research, prevents DOE and the Defense Department from collaborating on biofuels production, and strips emissions reduction from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) mission. Amendments to reverse all of these actions were turned away. Lastly, the Democratic alternative to COMPETES was also offered again, as it was in committee, and voted down.

The bill also provides the House with mismatching authorizations and appropriations for the effected agencies in FY 2016, as shown in the chart below (see also this table).

The House passed Department of Energy appropriations May 1, while the House Appropriations Committee passed their own NSF and NIST appropriations bill May 20, the same day the full House approved COMPETES. As it stands, the appropriations for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and ARPA-E both exceed the COMPETES authorizations, while the Office of Science and (so far) NIST and NSF appropriations are well shy of the COMPETES levels (remember, authorizations basically serve as spending targets for appropriators: they establish the maximum level of funding a program may receive). This situation will have to be sorted out later, after the relevant legislation is addressed by the Senate – especially if there’s an influx of additional funding following a future budget deal to roll back sequester-level spending.

Lastly, the Senate was not silent on these issues. The same day the House was tackling COMPETES and science appropriations, a bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) released their own partial version of COMPETES, covering the Office of Science and ARPA-E. Just as the House Democrats’ version of COMPETES was both more generous and farther-reaching on funding, so too is the new Senate version. That bill would provide an average 4 percent increase for both agencies through FY 2020 – not quite the doubling path conceived in the original America COMPETES bill in 2007, but still more aggressive than one might expect in these fiscally constrained times. The chart at right compares the various plans for the Office of Science.

Clearly, there are plenty of differences to be resolved still. And with the potential for a broader budget deal looming, many of these figures may need further revision yet.