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Competitiveness Bill Begins Senate Race

26 September 2006 (All day)
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A long-awaited bill to bolster U.S. science and engineering was introduced today in the Senate. The 212-page measure, called the "American Competitiveness Innovation Act," has attracted bipartisan support from leading senators and the strong backing of the scientific community. But plans to put the bill on the fast track for Senate passage this week have been abandoned, leaving it for a lameduck session of Congress held after the 7 November elections.

The bill borrows liberally from an acclaimed October 2005 report issued by the National Academies, Rising Above the Gathering Storm (ScienceNOW 25 January,). That report, in turn, was based on a request from Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), to describe the 10 most important actions that the federal government should take to preserve U.S. leadership in science. At the top of the panel's list were strengthening U.S. science and math education--both attracting more students into science and better teacher preparation and professional development--and doubling federal spending on research in the physical sciences. This was followed by several proposals that would foster innovation across government, industry, and academia. The panel put a price tag of $9 billion a year on the package.

The legislation embraces most of those recommendations, with the notable exception of a $500 million a year competitively awarded program for new buildings and scientific equipment. It also omits any mention of a permanent research and development tax credit for industry, which is also a core element in a competitiveness initiative that President George W. Bush included in his 2007 budget request. Congress so far has balked at its multi-billion-dollar a year cost of the tax provision.

This bill is not a spending measure, so Congress would have to appropriate money to implement most of its programs. Still, it conveys a sense of what legislators feel is important. The provisions affecting the Department of Energy, for example, are aimed at making the $18-billion agency a more nimble player in the federal science hierarchy as well as doubling its science budget over 10 years. The language relating to the Department of Education would give the Bush Administration what it wants--authorization of its proposed $250 million Math Now initiative for elementary and middle school students, along with expanding access to high school Advanced Placement (AP) courses in science and mathematics by increasing the number of qualified teachers. The National Science Foundation would see its authorized budget double over 5 years, to $11.2 billion in 2011. The measure also would give big boosts to NSF's prestigious graduate research fellowships and its interdisciplinary graduate traineeships (IGERT), as well as boosting the number of schools offering professional science master's degree programs.

"This bill is about growing our economy so that in 20 years we don't wake up and wonder how countries like China and India have passed us by," says Senator Alexander.

Legislative aides on both sides of the aisle, who spent the last 2 months cobbling together bits from three separate bills previously introduced, say that their bosses expect to take up the new bill after the election. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) had originally planned to allow only a few hours of debate before a floor vote this week, but he backed off after Democrats complained that there have been no hearings on the new bill and that it has not yet been vetted by a committee. The likely prospect of amendments, combined with a slew of other must-do business for the lameduck Congress, leave the bill's fate up in the air.

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