Senators Outline Road to Innovation

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators have rallied behind the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of a proposed multibillion-dollar increase in federal support for innovation.

The legislation, introduced today and dubbed the National Innovation Act of 2005, would nearly double the NSF budget, now $5.5 billion, by 2011. It would also create hundreds of new graduate fellowships, encourage all federal agencies to invest in high-risk research, and revise the tax code to promote more industrial spending on research. The bill closely tracks the recommendations made 1 year ago by a blue-ribbon panel of business and academic leaders assembled by the Council on Competitiveness.

"Whenever I meet with industry, they tell me that supporting university-based research is the single most important thing that we could do to bolster U.S. competitiveness," explained Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), co-sponsor of the proposal with Senator John Ensign (R-NV). "It's the raw material from which they innovate." Thirteen other senators have signed on as co-sponsors.

The bill recommends federal investment in advanced manufacturing, regional economic development, healthcare, and defense technologies. It would also create an interagency Council on Innovation that would evaluate legislative initiatives as well as develop metrics for judging the impact of any federal activity that affects the nation's ability to compete globally. Science lobbyists are thrilled by the bill's scope and its underlying message. The legislation "reflects what has become a consensus among the nation's business and academic communities concerning actions we must take to ensure our future global competitiveness and our national security," says the Association of American Universities, which represents 62 research-intensive universities. ASTRA, a consortium that has lobbied for increased spending on the physical sciences and engineering, has already announced that the bill is its number 1 legislative priority in 2006.

All that support will go for naught, however, unless Congress also agrees to put up the money. Despite a 2002 law calling for a 5-year doubling of NSF's budget, Congress actually cut the agency's budget last year and gave it a small increase this year. Lieberman acknowledges that funding remains a major obstacle but says he expects things to be different this time around. "There's a new sense of urgency and a new level of understanding about the importance of university-based research. I think we can do it."

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