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Senate begins work on the COMPETES Act

On November 6, the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing to examine federal science funding and its impact on the U.S. economy. This marked the Senate's first step in the needed reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act—the signature law that boosts federal support for science research and STEM education.

The America COMPETES Act, first passed in 2007, authorized increased research funding that put the U.S. on the path to double NSF and the DOE Office of Science budgets over a decade. It created programs to develop a new generation of K-12 STEM teachers, improved coordination among federal agencies, and established the forward-looking Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to fund high-risk, high-reward science.

While actual spending has not fully met the goals set in COMPETES due to budget limitations, the law is credited with keeping the U.S. globally competitive. Over 300 organizations, including AAAS, signed a letter in October stating that COMPETES is the key to closing the U.S. innovation deficit.

The current version of the law formally expired in September. Without Congressional action, COMPETE's research funding and programs cannot be included in future federal budgets.

In his testimony during the Committee hearing, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) described the U.S.'s technological advantage as the largest factor giving it a global economic edge. He emphasized that the U.S. needs to recommit to the COMPETES Act's goal of doubling funding for basic research, and noted that the U.S. spends around 0.8 percent of its GDP on research and development, while countries like China spend closer to 4 percent.

Nobel Laureate astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter, a fellow of AAAS, told the Committee that robust research funding leads to new inventions and is vital to attracting the next generation of U.S. scientists. He pointed out that a lack of investment has led some fields, including particle physics, to shift their center of mass to Europe.

The Committee will use testimony from the hearing as they prepare an updated version of COMPETES to present to the full Senate. Though there is likely to be partisan tension in the legislative process, proponents of the bill hope that framing research in economic terms will help make the case that it's a priority funding issue for the federal government.

Speaking at the hearing, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) made the point by quoting Ronald Reagan: "Although basic research does not begin with a particular practical goal, when you look at the results over the years, it ends up being one of the most practical things government does."

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