Future Uncertain for COMPETES Legislation

The America COMPETES Act first became law in 2007, to promote innovation and boost American global competitiveness. It was reauthorized once in 2010, and is once again up for reauthorization. Although the 2007 bill had bipartisan support, division along party lines has prevented progress in the legislative process for a comprehensive 2014 reauthorization.

There are currently four COMPETES bills; the House Republicans initially split the legislation into two separate bills (the FIRST Act and the EINSTEIN Act) while the House Democrats and the Senate proposed their own versions. Hence, the outlook for the most recent iterations of the bill is uncertain.

The Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act (FIRST Act, H.R. 4186) proposed a two-year reauthorization (FY 2014-FY 2015) for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) with both agencies receiving a 1.5 percent increase in FY 2015. The Enabling Innovation for Science, Technology, and Energy in America Act (EINSTEIN Act) reauthorized the Department of Energy’s Office of Science (OSC) but not the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) which was created under the 2007 COMPETES bill.

Meanwhile, the House Democrats and the Senate opted to introduce versions that propose four-year reauthorizations at higher funding levels, from FY 2015-FY 2019. However, they do differ in a few key areas.

The House Democrats’ bill (H.R. 4159) reauthorizes NSF, NIST, and DOE OSC, and focuses on four goals: supporting research, fostering innovation, creating jobs, and improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. In order to support research and foster innovation, the bill would increase funding for the three agencies by 5 percent year by year, and it would reauthorize the National Nanotechnology Initiative, ARPA-E, a Regional Innovation Program, and Innovation Hubs run by DOE. It would also establish the Federal Acceleration of State Technology Commercialization program in order to “advance United States productivity and global competitiveness by accelerating commercialization of innovative technology by leveraging Federal support for State commercialization efforts.” (See section 505 of the bill.)

Provisions for job creation in H.R. 4159 would include offering federal loan guarantees to small and mid-sized manufacturers to help them stay competitive, improving the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program run by NIST, and helping local governments employ more technologies that improve energy efficiency.

And, efforts to support and improve STEM education and the STEM workforce would include establishing an ARPA-ED to invest in R&D for educational technology, providing grants for students who receive STEM-related undergraduate degrees, and increasing diversity (namely, participation by women and minorities) in STEM fields.

The Senate bill (S. 2757) reauthorizes NSF and NIST from FY 2015-FY 2019, but excludes DOE which is not within the jurisdiction of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. The bill would provide annual increases for both agencies at 6.7 percent which would result in significant growth. Other goals include: improving STEM education, supporting NSF’s social, behavioral, and economic sciences (SBE) directorate, reducing administrative burdens for government researchers, maintaining attendance at science conferences, and supporting NSF’s merit review process.

Like the House Democrats’ bill, S. 2757 prioritizes STEM education and the STEM workforce; the bill directs the National Science and Technology Council to collect input from various stakeholders on the five-year STEM education reorganization that was approved in the 2010 COMPETES Act.

In section 101 of the bill, the Senate calls for “sustained and steady growth in funding” for R&D, including basic research in SBE, in light of the largely Republican effort to drastically reduce funding for social sciences research by shifting the money to other NSF directorates.

The bill would also establish a subcommittee to review administrative burdens on federally funded researchers (section 103), and issue a report containing recommendations for improving efficiency in the grant submission and review processes. This is likely a response to findings of a recent National Science Board report, which found that grant applicants often spend more than 40 percent of their work time on administrative tasks.

Finally, the Senate offers support and praise for NSF’s merit review process, but does require a report from the agency detailing steps taken to improve transparency and accountability. This appears to be in response to certain provisions in the FIRST Act, which would have required NSF to write a justification for each grant awarded that certifies that the research in question would accomplish at least one of a few national goals (section 106).

It is this example of policy-related language coupled with low funding levels that has made it difficult to move a bipartisan bill forward in the House.  While FIRST was voted out of both the subcommittee and full committee, the votes fell along party lines and received little support from the scientific community.  The EINSTEIN bill received a hearing, but ultimately was not marked up as a stand-alone bill.  That legislation was absorbed into a broader Department of Energy Research and Development Act of 2014 that authorized funding for a broader range of DOE programs.    

Meanwhile, the Senate bill still lacks an energy counterpart, and as the days draw closer to the fall recess and the final push to the general election, the prospects grow dim.        

An article in Science notes, however, that there may be a “glimmer of hope” for the Senate bill’s provisions for NSF and STEM education. As a first step, the House has already passed two bills—the NIST Reauthorization Act (H.R. 5035) and the Research and Development Efficiency Act (H.R. 5056) which include provisions that were originally part of the FIRST Act.