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The Competition Over a U.S. COMPETES Bill

29 October 2013 5:15 pm
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Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX)

Office of Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX)

Increasing federal support for research and science education used to be topics for bipartisan agreement. But an attempt this fall by the U.S. House of Representatives to update landmark legislation shaping the direction of three major science agencies reveals the deep cracks in that once united front.

The battle over reauthorizing the America COMPETES Act is still weeks away. But yesterday Democrats on the House science committee unveiled draft legislation that bears little resemblance to what the committee’s Republican chairman, Representative Lamar Smith (TX), has in mind.

The original COMPETES legislation, approved in 2007, committed the federal government to expanding research at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. It broadened science education across several agencies, launched the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy at DOE, and set government-wide science priorities to be managed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. After breezing through a divided Congress with the strong support of then President George W. Bush, it was reauthorized in 2010 despite partisan bickering within Congress over its size and duration.

But that wrangling may seem like a lovefest compared with the expected rancor in the next round. The two parties can’t even agree on which agencies should be part of the reauthorization. They also have starkly different views about how those agencies should go about their business.

Smith has not yet shared his draft bill with Democrats, the minority party in the House, or the science community. And a hearing scheduled for earlier this month was canceled because of the government shutdown. In a statement today to ScienceInsider, Smith said: “I look forward to continued discussions with my Democratic colleagues as we work through the legislative process to reauthorize science agencies under this Committee’s jurisdiction.”

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the committee’s ranking member, agreed to talk with ScienceInsider about both her draft bill and her frustrations in finding common ground with her Republican colleagues. Here are excerpts from today’s conversation.

Q: Why are you seeking a 5-year reauthorization, with annual budget increases of 5% for the relevant agencies?  

E. B. J.: That’s the minimum at which they can function appropriately. I have not seen the majority’s reauthorization, but from what I’m hearing from staff it’s troublesome—flat funding and broken up in more than one bill, with a separate bill for energy.

Q: Why do you think that is not a good idea?

E. B. J.: I’d understand better if I had seen it. But I’m a little suspicious that we’re not using the previous bill as a basis [for the reauthorization], abandoning something that people have put a lot of work into and that stakeholders have had a chance to provide input on.

Q: Republicans have talked a lot about having NSF-funded research enhance national security and economic development. Does your bill address those broader impacts?

E. B. J.: We’re attempting to tighten some of the standards and also reauthorize what we have. But I think it is presumptuous to draft a bill based on some of the opinions about research projects and NSF grant procedures that have been offered by some members. I really do not think it is the role of Congress to change this system without some type of adequate hearing for stakeholders.

If you don’t know the details, you can sit in Congress and ask a lot of questions about grants. But I think it’s better to ask for clarification rather than just rushing ahead and trying to eliminate some of those opportunities.

Q: Your bill talks a lot about broadening participation in science by women and underrepresented minorities. Are you just trying to reinforce what NSF is already doing, or does it need to do more?

E. B. J.: There might be some areas that need to be improved, but the language is primarily reinforcing. NSF enjoys a very good reputation—I can’t say perfect—for responsibility. I’d like to see that continue, and also protect what they are now doing.

Q: What NSF activities are most vulnerable?

E. B. J.: I’m concerned about the attacks on peer review, and decisions being made solely on the titles and brief description of some of the grants. I did do some checking up, when criticisms were made, and found there are some pretty valid explanations for the work. I’m not sure the committee has explored it to that depth.

Q: The bill also criticizes the administration’s proposal to reorganize STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education across the federal government. What bothered you?

E. B. J.: None of the stakeholders were involved, which concerned me. And since it’s such an important area, I did not want to see an interruption in what we are doing without a lot of input from stakeholders. If we are going to make major changes, then we need to know thoroughly what areas to eliminate or include. There’s a lot of talk about STEM education, but we haven’t seen a lot of progress.

Q: The bill is quite detailed about the major activities within DOE’s Office of Science, including authorizing language for the new energy hubs. Are you looking for a major shift in direction within the office, and are the hubs working?

E. B. J.: We’ve had a lot of conversations about whether they are working. And what we’re trying to do now is see if there can be some enhancements and whether the department is interested in looking into some innovations.

We’d like to see them explored and expanded, but not until there’s a good evaluation. Some of the programs we had high hopes for have been slow to get off the ground. In addition, there has been a lot of criticism from committee members about DOE pursuing some of these activities.

Q: You’ve asked DOE for a plan on exascale computing, which has been delayed. What do you want from them?

E. B. J.: Sound policies. Sound proposals of what the goals are, timetables, and how the evaluation would be conducted.

Q: Any chance of finding a middle ground with Republicans?

E. B. J.: On an individual basis, yes. But if the House leadership decides not to be cooperative, then there will be barriers. Speaking informally to individual members, I don’t think I’m too far away from their thinking. But those thoughts don’t always show up at a committee meeting.

Q: Is there anything you put in your bill specifically to address their concerns?

E. B. J.: What we’re trying to do is justify a meaningful program. We’re trying to be as reasonable as we can be, and still have some reason to believe that we can meet our expectations. It’s trying to use some common sense, with the hope that we would all like to get something done.

Q: Would you rather not have a reauthorization than a bill that you don’t support?

E. B. J.: It’s hard for me to say. If I thought that next year would bring a different attitude, then I would say, wait until next year. But I’m not sure that will be the case. I really have to wait until we’ve gotten through 13 December [the deadline for the next spending bill], and see whether there’s been any positive changes. And next year is an election year, which could also make a difference.

What it comes down to is trying to put your best foot forward, and then making a decision about whether to push harder or coming to the conclusion that it’s not going to happen. I’m not talking about giving up, but sometimes, when there is so much opposition, pushing harder just makes it worse.

Q: Have you spoken to the chairman about any mechanism for incorporating some of your language into his bill?

E. B. J.: Not in detail. I’ve spoken to him several times about sitting down for a talk about reauthorization, and he has assured me that it will happen. But he has not shared with me what he intends to bring forward. … Because I think that if we could talk in more depth and not just get quick, short, smiley answers, we could probably work more constructively in committee. But it’s been very difficult to do that within the environment that he has established.