Bipartisan legacy endangered as COMPETES hits House floor

By Katherine Ling | 05/18/2015 07:19 AM EDT

The last two bills to reauthorize the nation’s science and energy research programs in 2007 and 2010 passed with broad bipartisan support and united statements of forging a bold path to retain U.S. scientific leadership.

The last two bills to reauthorize the nation’s science and energy research programs in 2007 and 2010 passed with broad bipartisan support and united statements of forging a bold path to retain U.S. scientific leadership.

But the 2015 version scheduled to be considered on the House floor this week is likely to play out much differently, despite both parties touting the need for scientific research and innovation to keep the United States a world economic leader.

H.R. 1806, the "America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015," passed the House Science, Space and Technology Committee last month along party lines and with much criticism from Democrats, who called the bill the "America Concedes Act" and "America Retreats Act," largely protesting funding levels and new research grant requirements (E&E Daily, April 23).


The House Rules Committee is scheduled to meet tonight to set the rule for debate on the bill.

The bill would reauthorize the Energy Department’s basic and applied research programs, the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House, as well as support STEM education and improve national lab partnerships with the private sector. Funding authorization levels under the bill would apply to fiscal 2016 and 2017.

The measure sponsored by Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) would provide "targeted" budget increases from current enacted levels. The result is a 4 percent boost for the authorized budget level of the NSF to $7.6 billion, with a focus on biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, engineering and mathematics programs; an 8 percent increase for NIST to $934 million, including support for the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation institutes; and a 5 percent increase to $5.3 billion for DOE’s Office of Science, reinforcing the GOP’s stance that the federal government should fund basic research and not applied research or scaling-up technology.

Further supporting that policy, the bill would decrease DOE’s applied research programs in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by almost 30 percent to $1.2 billion, as well as cut the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy by 50 percent, or $140 million, below fiscal 2015 levels.

The proposal also would cut NSF’s social, behavioral and economic sciences budget by 45 percent from the fiscal 2015 appropriated levels and geosciences by 8 percent from current levels. NSF would be required to publicize false scientific data along with the name of the principal investigator, and projects would also need a clear "national interest" justification.

"This bill prioritizes basic research with targeted investments while staying within the cap set in law by the Budget Control Act for fiscal year 2016," Smith said during the bill’s committee markup. "Over the last decade, there has been unjustified growth in spending on late stage commercialization efforts within EERE. This bill refocuses DOE’s work on basic R&D efforts, not subsidies."

Smith added, "Despite this common-sense reduction, total funding authorized for EERE R&D will still be at a level greater than the budgets of Nuclear, Fossil and Electricity R&D combined."

But Democrats said the funding cuts would set the nation’s scientific work significantly back. It also sends a negative message to the nation’s scientists of distrust and will direct researchers toward safe choices instead of "innovation and curiosity," Democrats said.

They also accused Republicans of "politicizing" science by targeting funding cuts at renewable energy, biology, environmental and climate change research.

"This debate and vote is marked with my disappointment," ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) said in an email in advance of the bill’s floor consideration. Johnson introduced her own COMPETES reauthorization bill, H.R. 1898, in April with every Democratic committee member as a co-sponsor.

"The Republicans moved what has traditionally been a bipartisan bill out of committee along a party-line vote, showing no effort and little desire to bring Democrats into the conversation. … We need to press restart on this ill-advised bill and work on legislation that will help our scientific endeavors, not hurt," Johnson said, noting the bill is opposed by many universities, including the nation’s top research institutions and "the entire scientific community."

The Association of American Universities has criticized the GOP measure’s cuts to "the vital areas of research" of EERE, biological and environmental research, ARPA-E, and NSF’s Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences and Geosciences directorates.

"We recognize that the overly tight caps on domestic discretionary spending imposed by the Budget Control Act make it very difficult to provide the investments in research that are needed to advance the nation’s innovative capacity and global competitiveness. Nevertheless, we are disappointed in the overall level of investments in research proposed by this bill," AAU said in a statement.

The House this week may also vote under suspension of the rules on a series of smaller, less controversial bills, many of which passed on a bipartisan basis by voice vote in the committee earlier this year and have provisions that are also part of COMPETES (Greenwire March 4).

H.R. 1158, offered by Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.), would streamline DOE oversight of national labs, facilitate private-public partnerships for the labs and examine the opportunity for a federal advanced nuclear test reactor.

H.R. 1119, authored by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), would review federal research for unjustified burdens and for unnecessary requirements and duplication, and recommend cost-saving reforms.

H.R. 1162, a measure from Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), would increase transparency and incentives for science prize competitions. The bill passed with an amendment from Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) that would require the White House to identify areas of cross-cutting and agency-specific mission needs for prize competitions.

H.R. 874, a bill from Hultgren to boost public-private partnerships on U.S. efforts for exascale supercomputing, and H.R. 1156, a bill from Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) to create a federal panel to identify and coordinate international science and technology cooperation opportunities, passed the committee without amendment.

Another bill, H.R. 1561 — requiring the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to launch a research program focused on improving forecasting, including earlier severe weather warnings — also passed the Science Committee unanimously earlier this year, and is expected to pass the House again, as it did last year. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee also held a hearing on the issue last month (Greenwire March 25).

Also, the Committee on Rules will meet tomorrow to discuss H.R. 880, the "American Research and Competitiveness Act of 2015," from Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), which would permanently reauthorize the research and development tax credit.

Senate efforts

Although the comprehensive bill is likely to pass the House, the Smith bill is unlikely to move in its current form past the Senate, where Republicans must attract at least some Democratic votes to reach the 60 vote threshold to end debate and vote on the bill.

The last authorization bill expired in 2013, and the Senate has yet to publicly tackle the issue beyond a few hearings, despite efforts by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) last session (E&E Daily Nov. 18, 2014). Unlike the House, the jurisdiction of the programs under the bill spans two committees in the Senate: Commerce and Energy.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said in an earlier statement that he joined Smith in the effort to pass the reauthorization bill this year but did not comment on his lower chamber counterpart’s bill. Thune’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the measure or when the committee might consider a Senate version of the bill.

Although generally supportive of research with an eye on the budget, Thune has not prioritized the issues of science and education as highly as the previous chairman, former Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who was an important player in the previous reauthorizations of COMPETES.

In the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has started hearings for a comprehensive energy bill she hopes to pass out of committee, including several measures that would also be at home in a COMPETES reauthorization bill.

An ENR Committee hearing on June 4 includes bills that would require DOE to boost research in supercomputers; create a "smart" manufacturing plan; improve national laboratories’ abilities to enter into public-private partnerships and commercialization; create "microlabs" to increase national lab outreach; and streamline DOE oversight of labs. The provisions are similar to those also found in the Smith bill.

Schedule: The Rules Committee will meet Monday, May 18, at 5 p.m. in H-312 in the Capitol.