Science and technology research issues could gain prominence under a Republican-controlled Congress as the GOP and President Obama look for an early demonstration of productivity and bipartisanship -- especially one associated with the economy and jobs.
Obama and Majority Leader-in-waiting Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have both said they will respond to voters' desire for legislative action, but that could prove difficult on high-profile issues such as immigration or even the Keystone XL pipeline. Science research and development could provide a political and policy path forward relatively free of controversy and partisanship.
"In science and research, that is one where again it is not as high visibility but it is one that both parties really want to continue to push," said Patrick Von Bargen, former chief of staff to former Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). "Most members of Congress have universities in their districts, and this is important to them."
The main policy action on science and energy R&D is found in annual appropriations and in a comprehensive education and research and development bill known as COMPETES, which expired in September 2013. Efforts to reauthorize the bipartisan bill first passed under former President George W. Bush have stalled in large part over program funding authorization levels, although stakeholders say those differences could likely be reconciled if leadership makes the bill a priority -- the issue's lower profile proving both an advantage and a handicap.
While nondefense, discretionary spending has been lower overall in the past few years, science R&D funding is faring better in comparison to other programs, according to Matt Hourihan, R&D budget director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"Since sequestration took effect, nondefense R&D has been running somewhat ahead of the rest of the discretionary budget, and the thing about it is that it is roughly true both in the House and the Senate," Hourihan said. "Even now, there seems to be an understanding that science and technology funding is important, but whether that general agreement is able to stand up to the general attacks of the discretionary budget" remains to be seen, he said.
Within science and energy programs, there are issues that may be more vulnerable to attacks and funding cuts under a Republican-controlled Congress, especially social and climate science, as well as technology development and demonstration. Recent House appropriation bills have drastically downsized funding for the Energy Department's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office, which negotiations with the Democratic-controlled Senate have then restored.
That dynamic could change with Republicans in charge of the upper chamber, although a significant decrease in clean energy spending may be an issue Democrats would be willing to filibuster -- or even draw a veto threat from Obama, who has made climate change and energy a key part of his second term, Von Bargen said. GOP members of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee have also previously been more moderate on clean energy funding.
Republicans tend to favor basic science programs that provide the building blocks for an idea that the private market could then develop, which they say does not choose "winners and losers" between technologies. There is also growing bipartisan movement now toward providing government support to help ideas move from the lab to the market, known as "technology transfer."
It is a crucial time for U.S. science leadership, experts said. The National Academy of Sciences, business leaders and other experts have warned that U.S. economic competitiveness is slipping dangerously and will continue to do so without better science R&D funding and education.
A report earlier this fall from an American Academy of Arts and Sciences committee -- co-chaired by Norman Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp., and including former Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) and Charles Holliday, chairman of the board at Bank of America Corp. -- called for a national investment in research and development equal to at least 3.3 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.
"The decisions that policy-makers and leaders in science, engineering, and technology make over the next few years will determine the trajectory of American innovation for many years to come," the report said (Greenwire, Sept. 16).
GOP take the reins
The prioritization and funding of science and technology R&D will largely turn on decisions by the next chairmen and chairwomen of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee; the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee; and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is the current ranking member of the Appropriations subpanel that controls the budgets of the Energy Department and Army Corps of Engineers, and he is slotted to take the reins of the subcommittee next Congress. Alexander is a vocal supporter of government's role in basic science research and a leading proponent of reauthorizing COMPETES.
"You still have Lamar Alexander, who is very much a stalwart in terms of science funding, and so I think that is something that is going to be worked out between the chambers," Hourihan said.
Brian Reisinger, a spokesman for Alexander, said it was "presumptuous" to discuss the senator's priorities until the subcommittee members have been officially appointed.
But Alexander said last week that doubling the funding for energy research is still his goal.
"We worked together, several of us, on the America COMPETES Act, several years ago, which called for a doubling of funding in energy research and that is still my goal," Alexander said at a press conference unveiling new funding for supercomputing at the Capitol.
"I think we need to restrain spending in some other areas and double funding in energy research and this is a part of it. So I am only one United States senator and so I will have my voice but I still believe that and there are a number of Republicans and Democrats who also do," he said.
Along with basic science research, Alexander's previous actions indicate the nation's science infrastructure is likely to top the chairman's priorities -- with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in his home state -- along with electric vehicles, batteries, nuclear power and waste, and natural gas. Wind, and to some extent solar programs, may suffer some setbacks under an Alexander chairmanship, as he has repeatedly said mature technologies should be allowed to succeed or fail in the market without government support.
There has been stepped-up interest by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Congress in the future effectiveness and mission of the national laboratories, which could translate into some changed funding priorities and aligns with Alexander's interest in DOE project spending oversight (Greenwire, Sept. 16).
The senior senator from Tennessee said earlier this year that a "Red Team" review of spending at Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Uranium Processing Facility -- based on efforts by the Office of Science to rein in project delays and cost overruns -- could be a model for all DOE projects, especially the troubled Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina and the international nuclear fusion project known as ITER.
Similarly, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), current ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, appears to be interested in cost-effective science R&D programs but not necessarily cutting programs just to decrease spending.
Although not very vocal on science R&D, on issues that have come before the Commerce Committee such as science, technology, engineering and math education, and manufacturing, Thune has mainly been interested in ensuring programs are not duplicative and spending is offset. But South Dakota does have an interest in science and energy technology as the home of the Sanford Underground Research Facility -- a laboratory space deep underground where sensitive physics experiments can be shielded from cosmic radiation -- as well as being a leader in the nation's wind and oil and gas sectors.
In contrast to Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is slated to become chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee and flat out rejects the need for many of the science and technology programs, Alexander and Thune "look like pretty moderate, reasonable guys open to ideas and solutions," said Von Bargen. "I wouldn't be despondent about their chairmanship roles. Obviously, they will be more conservative than their Democratic ranking members, but they are both the kind of senator you can work with and come to with issues."
In a similar vein, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who will take the gavel of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee -- the Senate authorizing body for DOE -- generally supports science and energy research and will likely hold the line on most R&D programs that demonstrate effective results. In particular, she has shown interest in the energy-water nexus, marine hydrokinetic energy, energy storage, advanced nuclear and other priorities she laid out in her Energy 20/20 plan released in 2013 (E&E Daily, Nov. 5).
The efforts of Alexander, Thune and Murkowski may tip the scales on whether COMPETES' reauthorization -- and a larger science-focused agenda -- comes to the fore in a Republican-controlled Congress.
There are some efforts to reignite attempts to pass COMPETES during the lame-duck session, perhaps attached to an omnibus or continuing resolution, but even advocates admit the chances are slim given the very full agenda.
While the slate for the next congressional session looks no less full, supporters of the legislation could sell the bill as an early win in order to prioritize its passage before tackling more controversial issues.
Matthew Stepp, executive director of the Center for Clean Energy Innovation at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said COMPETES fulfills many campaign promises. "A lot of these races, a lot of members of the Senate are much more moderate, pro-economic growth models, so COMPETES is kind of one of those natural, nonpartisan growth and innovation productivity bills," he said.
For Republicans, it could also be touted as a win on a policy that predates Obama, given that its first passage was under a Republican president, although it also passed under a Democratically controlled Congress.
"If [the GOP] are going to have an agenda at all in research, science and technology, COMPETES seems to be a good vehicle for them. It isn't an Obama thing," Von Bargen said.
Passage will require further negotiations and work between Republicans and Democrats, along with promises by members on both sides not to introduce amendments on more controversial issues like U.S. EPA regulations or the Keystone XL pipeline -- as was the fate of the doomed energy efficiency bill from Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) in this Congress.
Regardless, the bill has fallen from the grand goals of a rapid doubling of the science budget originally envisioned in 2007, and its budget numbers are 25 percent less than what the original COMPETES put forth, according to Stepp.
"It certainly has deviated drastically from the original conception," Stepp said. "This bill is almost like coming back down to earth; what is realistic. Which is sad, because COMPETES was a very aspiring bill, and whatever comes out of the consensus, some of it will be aspiration but certainly not anywhere near where the original bill was."
And COMPETES still certainly sparks its share of disagreement.
House Republicans this year split the programs under the previous comprehensive COMPETES bill into two separate science and energy bills. Democrats criticized the science bill, H.R. 4186, for authorizing the programs only through fiscal 2015, cutting some funding levels below what the Appropriations Committee had already approved, and "politicizing" funding at the National Science Foundation by revising peer review of grants and assigning funding at the directorate levels for the first time -- cutting social, behavioral and geosciences budgets and increasing computer science, physics and biological science budgets.
H.R. 4186 passed the committee with no Democratic support in May.
A second bill on energy programs, H.R. 4869, would have cut $230 million from energy program authorization levels but didn't even receive a committee vote after Democrats protested that three business days was insufficient time to read and submit amendments and forced a reading of the 100-page bill (E&ENews PM, June 11).
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, introduced S. 2757 to reauthorize the science portions of COMPETES minus the Energy Department's Office of Science and other energy programs that were included in other bills and some of which also land in the jurisdiction of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Senators from both parties have expressed the intention to pass COMPETES as one bill (E&E Daily, Aug. 1).
Correction: A previous version of this story had the incorrect party in control of the House when COMPETES was passed in 2007.
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