House Passes Basic Energy Research Bills and NIST Improvement Act

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Publication date: 
19 July 2016

Last week the House passed two bills which would establish new basic energy research initiatives at the Department of Energy, as well as a bill which would update policies for certain NIST programs and direct a comprehensive National Academies review of NIST laboratories.

On July 11, members of the House voted on the “Electricity Storage Innovation Act” and the “Solar Fuels Innovation Act,” both summarized in FYI #82, as well as the “National Institute of Standards and Technology Improvement Act of 2016.” Sponsored by House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX), Rep. Stephen Knight (R-CA), and Rep. John Moolenaar (R-MI), respectively, the bills garnered bipartisan support and were passed by a voice vote.

Smith and Johnson disagree again on bills’ basic research focus

In his floor speech, Smith justified the energy bills’ limitation of authorized activities to basic research by reiterating his view that the private sector is better suited to develop and deploy new technologies and that the federal government should focus on basic research. “As we shape the future of the Department of Energy, we must prioritize basic energy science and research that only the federal government has the resources and mission to pursue,” he asserted.

In response, House Science Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) reiterated her concerns about this limitation. “As we heard from every single witness at a hearing that the Science, Space, and Technology Committee held on this topic just a month ago, as well as from DOE, there is no clear boundary that divides basic and applied research,” she noted, concluding that, “language attempting to restrict the initiative authorized in this bill to basic research activities could create an inherent conflict in its implementation.”

However, Johnson did not oppose passage of the bills, and said that she is hopeful they can later be modified such that all members in both chambers can support the bills. The Senate has yet to consider similar legislation.

NIST bill drawn from COMPETES Act but lacks funding authorizations

The “NIST Improvement Act” primarily consists of provisions drawn from Title IV of the “America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015” which the House passed last May. Although the COMPETES act has been the vehicle for reauthorizing NIST programs in recent years, the House Science Committee leadership is referring to the “NIST Improvement Act” as a NIST reauthorization bill.

The bill also overlaps with some sections of the Senate’s successor to the COMPETES Act, the “American Innovation and Competitiveness Act.” For example, both bills would alter the membership requirements for NIST’s Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology, update NIST’s education and outreach policies, and revamp the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership program.

Smith used his floor speech to highlight the NIST bill’s alignment with the priorities of President Bush's American Competitiveness Initiative and the 2007 COMPETES Act:

The American Competitiveness Initiative calls for strengthening Federal investments in these areas by reallocating existing federal resources to the three major innovation-enabling basic research agencies: the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's Office of Science and its national labs, and NIST's core lab research and facilities, which is the subject of the bill before us tonight.

On the other hand, Johnson—although a cosponsor of the bill—lamented its lack of funding authorizations, a key element of previous COMPETES acts:

As an authorizing committee, the Science Committee should make an informed recommendation for funding the agency’s critical work and the human and physical infrastructure that supports that work. NIST’s aging infrastructure is crumbling and creating safety issues. NIST struggles to compete with the private sector in attracting top new technical talent. Congress continually expands the responsibilities and authorities of [NIST]. If we want the agency to be successful, we must be willing to fund it.

Johnson noted her appreciation of the bill’s provisions which encourage NIST’s public and private collaboration efforts, but indicated her hope that Congress will authorize funding levels in the near future.

Bill calls for comprehensive review of NIST laboratories

One provision of particular interest would require NIST to task the National Academy of Sciences with conducting a comprehensive review of NIST’s laboratory programs. The review would entail assessing the following:

  1. The technical merits and scientific caliber of the research conducted at the laboratories;
  2. The effects of the 2010 laboratory reorganization on NIST’s ability to fulfill its mission;
  3. The process for planning, coordinating, and executing crosscutting R&D activities across the laboratories; and
  4. The laboratories’ engagements with industry and their consideration of industry needs when setting research goals and objectives.

NIST Advanced Measurement Lab ComplexThe bill would also require NIST to task the National Academies with conducting ongoing reviews of the individual labs, which include the Engineering Laboratory, Physical Measurement Laboratory, Information Technology Laboratory, Material Measurement Laboratory, Communication Technology Laboratory, Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, and Center for Neutron Research. The bill specifies that the Academies assess the technical quality and impact of the work of two labs every year, and that each lab be evaluated at least once every three years. Although the current statute does not require periodic assessments, the Academies have assembled panels of experts to assess NIST’s standards and measurements labs since 1959. Most recently, the Academies issued an evaluation of the Physical Measurement Laboratory in 2016.