Congress Votes to COMPETE

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

Its title won't win any prizes for brevity, but the America COMPETES (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science) Act is about to become law. Last night, Congress completed a 2-year journey down the road to strengthening U.S. research and the education system upon which it rests by authorizing $43 billion over 3 years for dozens of programs at six federal research agencies.

The wide margin of victory for H.R. 2272--it was passed by unanimous vote in the Senate and by a 367-57 tally in the House of Representatives--reflects the overwhelming recognition that innovation drives the U.S. economy, say supporters. And a strong scientific infrastructure, they add, provides the basis for innovation. "This bill will help us keep our brainpower advantage," says Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who shepherded the bill through three Senate panels. "Securing a brighter future for our children is simply not a partisan issue," notes his in-state colleague, Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN), who played a similar role in the House.

The 407-page bill adopts nearly all of the recommendations from a 2005 National Academies' panel that Congress asked for a to-do list of how to preserve a healthy economy (Science, 21 October 2005, p. 423). Its prescription includes giving a big boost to programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF)--already a major player in precollege, undergraduate, and graduate STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education--and greatly raising the education profile of the Department of Energy (DOE) and its network of national labs. The bill supports increasing the research budgets of NSF, DOE's Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology at a faster pace than President George W. Bush has requested in his American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI). It also creates a new research entity within DOE, modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to speed the development of new energy technologies.

As with any authorization bill, the legislation contains policy directions from Congress on specific programs, along with suggested spending levels. But an agency's actual budget each year is set by a separate appropriations bill. Even so, the Bush Administration thinks the bill asks for too much. "It's a nice bill, and its principles are aligned with what the president is trying to accomplish in ACI," says John Marburger, the president's science adviser. "But it substantially overauthorizes, and my concern is that there won't be enough money to fund everything."

The legislation was endorsed by an unusually broad coalition of scientific societies, business organizations, and higher education associations. Their decision to emphasize the overall importance of innovation rather than lobby for specific programs at particular agencies was a wise one, says Gordon, who chairs the House Science and Technology Committee. "We already had a good model [the National Academies' report] to work from," Gordon explains. "Their role was as cheerleaders. And that was very helpful."

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