The U.S. science community got a big pat on the back today from members of the Senate commerce and science committee.
The senators delivered their encouraging message in the form of a bipartisan bill that would reauthorize programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and tweak policies on science education and innovation across the federal government. Two years in the making, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act finally makes its appearance as the Senate’s proposed replacement of the 2010 America COMPETES Act that expired in 2013.
The new bill (S.3084) was crafted by Senators Cory Gardner (R–CO) and Gary Peters (D–MI) and has the backing of the committee’s chairman, Senator John Thune (R–SD), and ranking member Senator Bill Nelson (D–FL). It is much closer to the community’s view of the federal role in research and education than a sheaf of legislation adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives in the past year. It endorses NSF’s current approach to choosing what research to fund, urges the executive branch to find ways to reduce the amount of time that universities and scientists spend complying with rules governing recipients of federal research dollars, and calls for the spread of NSF’s wildly popular Innovation Corps program to train budding academic entrepreneurs.
Research lobbyists hope that the bill’s support for the two criteria NSF uses to select the best research—scientific quality and broader societal impacts—will put to rest the 3-year battle between scientists and the House science committee. The committee’s chairman, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), and other Republican legislators have repeatedly ridiculed dozens of NSF grants that they feel are frivolous or a waste of money, and their versions of an NSF reauthorization bill proposed a different metric, namely, that NSF certify every grant is “in the national interest.” They have also urged NSF to narrow the scope of its research portfolio by reducing spending in the social sciences and geosciences.
But the senators flatly reject those arguments and strongly defend the agency’s practices. “Its peer review and merit review processes have successfully identified and funded scientifically and societally relevant research and should be preserved,” the bill declares.
The bill’s language on easing the so-called “administrative burden” on campus-based research is also music to the ears of university officials. Its Title II tells the White House Office of Management and Budget to take a series of steps to address the long-standing problem of ensuring that universities are accountable for federal dollars without strangling them in unnecessary red tape. One change aims to save time and effort by having funding agencies adopt a just-in-time process for grant applicants that would require them to submit certain information only after their application has passed initial scrutiny and seems likely to be funded. Another would draw on a centralized database of investigator profiles that all agencies could tap during the grantsmaking process. The bill does not go as far as a 2015 recommendation from a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine panel to create a quasi-independent Research Policy Board to ride herd over the process and take preventive steps, instead calling for an interagency working group that would try to resolve issues as they arise.
The 150-page bill offers guidance on a host of other issues. It would create an outside advisory council to suggest how to improve the government’s $3 billion investment in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. It backs greater use of prizes, competitions, and crowdsourcing to foster innovation. It tells NSF to do even more to broaden participation in science by women and underrepresented minorities, including a program that targets elementary students. And, in a symbolic move, it would change one word in the name of the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), a 37-year-old program that helps states that receive relatively little federal research money compete for science funding. By substituting “established” for “experimental,” the lawmakers are signaling their desire to make the program permanent at NSF and several other agencies.
The legislation also suggests that NSF create a program to fund midsized projects that are larger than existing center grants and smaller than large research facilities. A report by the National Science Board, NSF’s oversight body, identified such a need for research, instrumentation, and infrastructure costing from several million to a few hundred million dollars. “The idea was to make sure the community knew NSF is receptive to big ideas that may not fit within an existing large program,” says former board member Kelvin Droegemeier, vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, who led the study. And legislators seem to agree, calling such a program “essential to the portfolio of the Foundation and advancing scientific understanding.”
One element missing from the bill is an aspirational funding level for the appropriations committee to consider when it writes the annual spending bill covering the relevant agencies. That’s because multiyear authorization bills calling for robust annual increases, which used to be the norm, have become anathema to congressional Republicans sworn to lower overall spending.
But the bill’s sponsors still want to express their support for research. So a call for a 4% increase at NSF and NIST in 2018, on top of what appropriators have already proposed for 2017, is expected to be tacked onto the original bill before it is marked up by the committee next Wednesday.