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Science Agency Budgets in America COMPETES 2015

This year's reauthorization of the COMPETES bill revives debate over the direction of federal science funding

This month the debate has again resumed over reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act, legislation at the heart of federal innovation policy with funding ramifications for several major science and technology agencies. Wednesday saw passage of the new GOP-sponsored version, dubbed simply the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015, by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. With little bipartisan collaboration in advance, the bill was approved (and Democratic amendments rejected) along starkly partisan lines. Among the rejected amendments was an alternative Democratic bill.

COMPETES authorization bills have been passed twice before, in 2007 and again in 2010.[1] Among other things, past COMPETES authorized aggressive funding targets (though not actual funding, which is up to appropriators) to double the budgets for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Department of Energy Office of Science (DOE SC); the original COMPETES also created the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). But appropriators have failed to hit those funding targets in the years since, and efforts to reauthorize the legislation last year (via the FIRST Act) were marred by partisan debates over peer review and proposed cuts to social science and geoscience funding.

Similar to last year’s bill, this year’s GOP bill takes a more restrained approach to science agency spending targets overall, and identifies spending priorities that have prompted controversy. Below is a breakdown of funding levels authorized in the floor-bound majority bill, alongside comparisons to the Democratic alternative and the President’s budget request.

Covered Agencies and Terms. There are differences between the GOP and Democratic bills in agencies covered and years of authorization. As mentioned above, past versions of COMPETES set funding targets for NSF, NIST, DOE SC, and ARPA-E. The current GOP bill (H.R. 1806) includes these agencies, but also includes DOE’s applied technology offices, including those for nuclear, renewable, and fossil energy. The Democratic alternative (H.R. 1898) only included funding levels for the four original agencies.

The two prior COMPETES bills both provided funding targets for three years. In contrast, the Republican bill covers only a two year period, from FY 2016 to FY 2017, while the Democratic bill extends authorizations through FY 2020.


Funding Levels. Aside from different timeframes, the larger contrast can be seen in the overall funding amounts proposed by each party. Republicans propose a total of $13.7 billion in FY 2016 for NSF, NIST, and DOE SC, a 2.9 percent increase from the current fiscal year. Funding would then be flat in FY 2017, which accounting for inflation may feel like a 1.8 percent drop. By comparison, the Democratic COMPETES bill (which matches the President’s FY 2016 budget request) would establish average year-on-year increases for the three agencies of 5.3 percent through FY 2020, leaving them $4.1 billion or 31 percent higher than current levels in the aggregate (see chart at right).

Overall, the Republican bill would authorize $7.6 billion for NSF in 2016, $126 million less than the President’s budget request and Democratic COMPETES. While the Republican COMPETES legislation would increase NIST’s core science and technical programs to $745 million, that amount remains $10 million below the President’s request and the Democratic alternative.


Repeating a controversial move seen last year, the Republican bill authorizes individual directorates within NSF, thereby challenging the value of social and behavioral sciences and geosciences. NSF’s social science directorate would receive a 44.9 percent cut from FY 2015 levels in nominal dollars, while the bill would levy an eight percent reduction on the geosciences. Republicans would, on the other hand, favor the biology, computing, engineering, and math and physical sciences directorates, granting each at least a 12 percent increase above FY 2015. The chart at right shows the relative effect of this.

Although funding for DOE SC would match levels proposed by the President and House Democrats, the Republican COMPETES bill significantly differs from these by cutting SC’s Biological and Environmental Research (BER) program to 7.1 percent below FY 2015 levels, compared to a 3.4 percent increase in the President’s FY 2016 request. This is unsurprising given the partisan differences over climate research. It should be noted, however, the GOP-backed SC figures are more generous than those granted by the House Appropriations Committee in their own bill, which passed the same day.


The way the GOP bill handles the applied energy offices also shows a stark contrast with the President’s priorities. Funding for DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would also drop by more than one-third of the current level, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) budget would be cut in half, to $140 million, from the current $280 million. By contrast, the fossil and nuclear program offices would receive increases of 6.2 and 13.8 percent, respectively. (The aforementioned figures from the appropriations bill likewise refuted the Administration’s request).

In cumulative inflation-adjusted dollars, the Republican COMPETES bill would only allow science agencies to grow as fast as GDP in the first year alone. Adjusting for inflation, funding would then “drop” in the second year, closer in line with what one might expect under sequestration-level spending under the Budget Control Act.

At Wednesday’s markup, numerous amendments were considered, though all but three were rejected by the majority. Among the failed amendments aimed at funding was one offered by Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) that sought to increase funding for DOE’s Biological and Environmental Research program, which Republicans would also bar from starting any new climate science research unless the program can show it does not duplicate work being funded by other federal agencies. Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) put forward an amendment that would have boosted funding for NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership and Network for Manufacturing Innovation, while an amendment introduced by Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) attempted to increase funding for the NSF Directorate for Education and Human Resources STEM initiatives. Several others also would have tackled funding authorizations in varying ways.

Next Steps. The bill will now move on to the full House, while the Senate drafts its own bill. Following the markup, Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) issued a joint statement expressing their intention to work together going forward, perhaps suggesting a similar debate is in store on the Senate side.