Republicans, Dems set to clash on role of federal R&D amid dwindling funding, certainty

In 2007, Congress passed one of its last truly bipartisan, comprehensive bills, which aimed to boost scientific research, development and education in order to reverse the declining level of U.S. competitiveness.

But Republicans and Democrats now have very different visions for the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science Act (COMPETES Act), whose authorization officially lapsed at the end of September.

It is unclear whether the parties will be able to find a compromise anytime soon, undermining the little certainty about federal support for research and development left for the scientific, academic and private-sector communities after sequestration and the government shutdown.

At issue is whether it is the role of the federal government to support not just basic science but also efforts to use that science outside the laboratory -- applied science -- in the face of a dwindling budget and U.S. scientific leadership.

Six years ago, both chambers and parties agreed that the government had to do more to both push discovery science -- like subatomic particles and particle accelerators -- and to connect with the marketplace to understand what technology was needed and how discovery science could be commercialized. It was a response in large part to a National Academy of Sciences report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," that called for a comprehensive and coordinated federal effort on science funding and education to re-establish U.S. leadership.


COMPETES overhauled and connected disparate science programs throughout the executive branch both in basic science and some applied science, coaxing lab experiments into the market. It included programs such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), energy research hubs and private-public manufacturing initiatives, as well as authorization for the Energy Department's Office of Science, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Commerce Department's National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST).

It also authorized $63 billion in spending from fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2013, although $52.4 billion was actually appropriated over that time.

Now House Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee on Energy Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) wants to focus just on basic science, at a smaller price tag. In a subcommittee hearing yesterday, Smith described a discussion draft bill that is one of several alternatives to replace COMPETES. It would take a piecemeal strategy to reauthorize the Office of Science, separate from NSF and NIST -- and lose a few programs and some spending, including ARPA-E.

"The 'EINSTEIN America Act' prioritizes science activities within the department," Smith said. "This ensures that American taxpayer dollars are better utilized and enables labs to do more with less."

The bill would codify the Office of Science's mission, boost basic science spending 1.7 percent above current levels to $4.7 billion and support initiatives to significantly advance X-ray light-source user facilities, the study of particle physics, and supercomputers, as well as reduce some oversight and regulation (E&E Daily, Oct. 28).

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Energy Subcommittee, slammed the bill yesterday at the hearing. He argued that it actually would cut funding for research, saying the rate of inflation for research is about 3 percent, but the bill only provides year-to-year increases of 1 to 1.7 percent and only provides authorization for two years.

"It is disappointing that they are approaching it this way, because ARPA-E was the cornerstone, as far as I saw it, for COMPETES," Swalwell said in a telephone interview later in the day. "Splitting it out it gives no certainty that ARPA-E will continue to be a priority, so there will be funding uncertainty, which I think is unnecessary, and I think this is a larger part of this recent fear in the majority of doing anything comprehensive. The fear of doing anything big, this piecemeal approach, does not give certainty, and neither does a two-year budget."

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), ranking member of the full committee, unveiled a discussion draft bill earlier this week that would reauthorize COMPETES as a full, comprehensive bill including the Office of Science, NSF, NIST, ARPA-E, public-private manufacturing initiatives and STEM education (E&E Daily, Oct. 29).

Swalwell also criticized Smith's draft discussion bill for undermining DOE's climate science research in its Office of Biological and Environmental Research. The bill would direct DOE to prioritize work on biological systems and genomics sciences.

During yesterday's hearing, Horst Simon, deputy laboratory director at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said gutting the climate science program would hamper a better understanding of weather and energy.

"Climate science helps predict rainfall in the West," Simon said. "Availability of water can impact in terms of how hydropower is generated. ... DOE is uniquely situated with understanding not just climate itself but the direction of climate with the ecosystem."

Swalwell said he is encouraged that Smith has invited bipartisan feedback on the EINSTEIN bill, adding that he is ready to look for compromise.

Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), chairwoman of the Energy Subcommittee, said after the hearing that she, too, is ready to try and find a way to work together on the bill, but funding levels are likely to be a challenge.

"I would say if there is any increase, it should be deemed a victory, and so I think increasing funding over the 1.7 percent increase we are seeing now, it would be a very challenging lift, given the fact that other agencies have taken extreme cuts and are facing additional cuts," Lummis said. "I do see funding will be a sticking point if the Democrats insist that what we view is a funding increase continues to be viewed by the members of the minority party as a funding decrease."

Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.), the chairman of the House National Science and Lab Caucus and a member of the Science Committee, said it is important to move quickly, but many questions remain.

"I am convinced we have a unique role as federal government to help guide, direct and fund basic scientific research, where we can't wait for someone else to do that; we need to be engaged in that," he said after the hearing. "So anything that potentially distracts away from that, whether it is these delays or seeing budgets for basic scientific research decrease while applied science -- again important, but arguably, some other groups could do that more on their own with little involvement on our part -- seeing those increase while basic science decreases does concern me in the message it sends to people doing research right now and also young people interested in STEM education."

Nick Loris, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said the Republican piecemeal approach is a good one to cut down on government waste, which he said tends to come with applied science funding and more public-private partnership programs.

"I think splitting it up will [be] helpful [to] focus the scrutiny and analysis of these programs, as well, and see if they are really needed," he said. "There is a lot of unnecessary spending in public-private partnerships, especially for energy. ... Those roles are best left to private sector."

But Joanne Padrón Carney, director of the Office of Government Relations at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said breaking up the bill into smaller pieces undermines an important "symbolic" message of the bipartisan support the bill has enjoyed since 2007, when it was signed into law by Republican President George W. Bush, and then again in 2010, when it was signed into law by Democratic President Obama.

But she noted that smaller bills can be easier to pass than larger ones.

"I think that COMPETES was a bipartisan activity, and we hope that the majority and minority committee members can find some grounds of consensus. But the way this is playing out, it is going to be a rather difficult discussion," she said.

And while ultimately it is up to appropriators to provide actual funding, if programs are not authorized, it offers a reason not to appropriate any spending for them, Carney said.

"In this fiscal environment that we face and this push to decrease spending, I think it kind of can be a flag that we could, since they are not authorized, could make the argument to cut these programs," she said.


Work on COMPETES is starting up on the Senate side, as well. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) announced yesterday that he will hold his first hearing on the COMPETES bill next week. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), one of the key Republican figures who helped negotiate the COMPETES bill in 2010, is scheduled to testify, along with prominent scientists from the University of Oklahoma, Harvey Mudd College, the University City Science Center and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which also has jurisdiction over part of COMPETES, is supportive of extending the law and continuing innovative programs like ARPA-E that could lead to major advances for U.S. energy technology, committee spokesman Keith Chu said in an email. Wyden is working with Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Alexander and others on the best way to move it forward, he said.

Coons, a key figure in the COMPETES reauthorization on the Senate side, supports keeping the bill intact as a part of an innovation ecosystem, especially ARPA-E, his office said.

"Senator Coons is a strong believer in the value of COMPETES and thinks it ought to be reauthorized," Coons spokesman Ian Koski said in an email. "There are lots of folks in the Senate -- Democrats and Republicans -- who agree. The federal government has an historic and important role to play in advanced research and development."

Coons is not a fan of the Republican approach, Koski said.

"This legislation is just the latest volley by House Republicans in their systematic attack on science. The idea of abandoning ARPA-E after the enormous success these last few years is ludicrous. It has made a real difference in promoting innovation in the energy space. Innovation fuels our economy. Starving it now makes no sense," Koski said.

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