Senate Committee Holds Hearing on Reauthorization of America COMPETES Legislation

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Publication date: 
14 November 2013

Last  week’s two-hour hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and  Transportation revealed much support for federal funding of basic research but  few details about the committee’s plans to reauthorize the America COMPETES  Act.

The  original COMPETES legislation was passed in 2007, and was reauthorized – with  considerably more difficulty – in 2010.   The act expired on September 30 of this year.  Known best for its goal of the doubling of  the budgets of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the National  Science Foundation, and the research programs of the National Institute of  Standards and Technology, the legislation set important policy  direction and funding goals.  Actual  funding, provided by annual appropriations legislation, has fallen short of the  goals set by the first two versions of this legislation. 

The  House Science, Space, and Technology Committee is moving on a reauthorization  of the legislation, pursuing a strategy of passing a bill authorizing the DOE  Office of Science, and a separate bill for the NSF and NIST.  A hearing on a DOE draft authorization bill  was held on October 30; a hearing on  the NSF and NIST draft bill was held on November 13.

“I will again  push for reauthorization of this important legislation this Congress” said Chairman  Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) in his opening remarks at the Senate hearing on November  6.  Rockefeller’s support of science and  technology, and the COMPETES legislation was obvious, as he remarked “I don’t know of anything more important  than this hearing.”   Senator John  Thune (R-SD), the committee’s Ranking Member, expressed similar, if more  guarded support, stating “I believe it is  important to remember our current budget realities and the need to set federal  funding priorities in scientific research and continue to improve  coordination.”

It  is unclear how the committee will go forward on a reauthorization bill.  The committee passed the last bill quickly by  a unanimous voice vote in 2010, with Rockefeller then explaining that Members  and staff had spent hours on amendments “to try to make people happy.”  The process and outcome was different this  summer when the committee passed by a strictly party-line vote a NASA  reauthorization bill.  At that hearing a  senior Republican senator commented the bill had been unveiled only a week  before with no discussion, remarking that the vote was a “sour note” in the  committee’s bipartisan history of supporting NASA.  Not surprisingly, the partisan divide was  about funding levels and the degree to which authorization bills should reflect  spending limits set by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

The  first witness to testify before the committee was Senator Lamar Alexander  (R-TN) who gave an eloquent statement about the importance of reauthorizing the  COMPETES legislation.  Alexander was  instrumental in getting the original bill passed.  He urged the committee “to authorize the appropriations committees to finish the job that the  Congress started in an overwhelming, remarkable, bipartisan way in 2007 to  double the budgets for basic research at major research institutions in our  federal government.”   While acknowledging budget constraints, he declared  “governing is about setting priorities.”   Alexander sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee.  Toward the end of his five-minute statement,  he said “I think it is up to you to  authorize what our goals should be and it’s up to us on the appropriations  committee to decide how much to spend each year.” 

The  committee heard from four additional witnesses who each stressed the importance  of science and technology.  There was  little discussion about the new reauthorization legislation.  National Science Board Vice Chairman Kelvin  Droegemeier testified “this is a  difficult time for Federal budgets and for individuals in the academic,  nonprofit and public sectors who rely on Federal support.  Investments in science and technology compete  with a host of other legitimate funding priorities.”  Responding to questions, he stated that  students and young researchers are “quite discouraged” because of low success  rates in securing NSF grants and significant delays in facilities’ construction  because of budget sequestration. 

Saul  Perlmutter of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory spoke of the  difficulties in conducting new research due to flat funding levels,  sequestration cuts, and more lately, the government shutdown.  He warned the committee that American students are going elsewhere to pursue their research because of uncertain  future funding levels.  Perlmutter told  the committee:

“Some  will argue that during periods of constrained budgets all federal investments must  be curtailed,  cut back and reduced.  Admittedly, there are  always opportunities to find efficiencies and  reduce costs.  But, scrimping on science and  holding up scientific progress, for whatever reason,  is penny wise and pound foolish.  Even in  tough economic times and tight budgets it is  possible to spend money wisely and make the investments necessary to reap a brighter future.  The economic argument, though perhaps not immediately obvious to some, is singularly compelling.  Yet, there is a broader and perhaps more important argument to be examined.  Scientific advancement has made the world a better place -- living standards are rising across the planet,  fewer people are hungry and life spans are increasing.  Science paves the way for a more  peaceful and productive existence.”

Similar points were made by Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe and University  City Science Center President and CEO Stephen Tang.  All of the testimony was well received. 

A  variety of topics were raised by the senators, including recent discoveries at  South Dakota’s Large Underground Xenon experiment, EPSCoR, computer science and  cybersecurity, increasing the diversity of students in STEM fields, federal STEM  program consolidation, public-private partnerships, and technology transfer.  Committee Democrats criticized the effects of  sequestration on the research community, with Rockefeller asking for the help  of scientists in publicizing its impacts and pressuring Congress to abolish  it.  “Sequestration goes on and on and you go down and down,” Rockefeller said to the witnesses.