Congress appears ready to start of new fight on what until recently has been a largely non-partisan issue. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) has circulated draft legislation to reauthorize and replace the America COMPETES Act. Entitled the “Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, Technology Act of 2013” or FIRST Act, the draft is the reported first of two bills that would reauthorize key civilian research programs of the federal government. The COMPETES Act, or the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act of 2007, was first passed in 2007 and reauthorized in 2010 by large bipartisan margins.
The proposed legislation authorizes and directs a wide range of activities of federal agencies and offices including the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation (NSF), essentially the bulk of the nation’s non-medical, civilian research and development. On the Senate side, the Commerce, Space and Transportation Committee held a hearing on November 6th, while no draft legislation has been circulated by the Senate, Senators on both sides of the aisle stressed the importance of research and development and voiced strong support to continuing in the spirit of the COMPETES Act.
In contrast, a November 13th hearing of the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Research and Technology proved far more contentious. The hearing focused on the draft legislation which contains a proposal that would require the National Science Foundation (NSF) to justify every grant it awards as being in the “national interest”. The provision would require the NSF to document how its basic-science grants benefit the country. The bill defines includes an expansive definition of natural interest that includes six goals: economic competitiveness, health and welfare, scientific literacy, partnerships between academia and industry, promotion of scientific progress and national defense. Those criteria are in line with a ‘broader impacts’ assessment that the NSF already requires scientists to include in their grant applications. But the bill would place an extra requirement on NSF program directors by requiring them to publish justification for each grant award on the foundation’s website. The science, engineering, and technology communities remain concerned that the proposal would disrupt the long time peer-review method of making research grants and replace it with federal employees making grant decisions.
Science Committee staffers have told science community groups that the proposed language is necessary to gain support or at least preempt opposition from some conservative lawmakers who object to funding of social science research and some research they see as “silly or unnecessary”. While NSF acknowledges that they need to improve communicating the merits of grants across the board – they stand by their assertion that through the widely accepted peer-review process, NSF funds the best science.
ASCE supports a quick re-authorization of the nation’s civilian research and development programs, and joins with science, engineering, and technology organizations, universities, and corporations in expressing concern with the House proposal to alter the peer review method of grant selection. The draft has also been criticized for a lack of vision and merely being a list of items the Majority believes need to be corrected. The bottom line is that the controversy will likely join the long list of issues that progress has slowed or stopped.