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U.S. Senate Hearing on COMPETES Act Starts a Long, Tough Road to Reauthorization

7 November 2013 11:30 am
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Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) chairs a U.S. Senate panel that hopes to renew a key piece of science legislation.

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Kickoff. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) chairs a U.S. Senate panel that hopes to renew a key piece of science legislation.

The line to get into the hearing room yesterday afternoon snaked down two flights of stairs in the U.S. Senate’s Russell Office Building in Washington, D.C. Its length reflected a desire by science lobbyists to witness an increasingly rare phenomenon in Washington—bipartisan support for research from a congressional science committee.

The hearing was the opening move by the Senate commerce and science committee to reauthorize the 2010 America COMPETES Act, which governs research and education programs at several agencies. There are several reasons that doing so will be an uphill battle—not least because the Republican leaders of the equivalent panel in the U.S. House of Representatives have a far different vision of the government’s role in research. But yesterday’s hearing was an old-fashioned lovefest, a warm embrace of the principles that the academic research community holds dear.

The opening witness was a Republican, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. He urged the Democratic-led panel to “finish the job” of doubling the budgets of the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, a major goal of the original 2007 COMPETES Act that Congress has never come close to achieving.

“Where will the money come from?” Alexander asked, before answering the question himself. “There are plenty of things we do that are less important” than research, he asserted. He also urged the panel to fulfill its role in the larger legislative process—“authorize what our goals should be, and then it’s up to the appropriations committee to decide how much to spend.”

Alexander’s upbeat testimony set the tone for the 2-hour hearing. Members from both sides of the aisle pressed a second panel of witnesses from academia and industry to explain why federal support for basic research and for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education is so important. They asked what additional steps the government should be taking to make sure that the United States remains an innovation powerhouse in the face of growing competition from the rest of the world. They were especially keen to hear from Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, and a computer scientist, about the college’s success in boosting the number of women studying computer science by making the subject more appealing to them.

“Should we be adding more faculty slots in computer science?” wondered Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), whose state is home to Microsoft and many other high-tech companies. “Absolutely,” Klawe said.

There was one dissenting voice in the choir, however. Reducing the country’s massive debt, now at $17 trillion and growing daily, must be the government’s top priority, argued Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI). “I’d love to talk about spending more money on basic research,” he said. “But until we deal with the fact that two-thirds of our budget is out-of-control, on automatic pilot … we are really stealing the future of our kids.”

Johnson was also scornful of what he perceived to be Harvey Mudd’s formula for attracting more women and non-Asian minorities into computer science. “I’m all for designing classes that are fun and cool,” he said in response to Klawe’s description of how women could overcome their “imposter syndrome” by doing programming and research in a supportive environment. “But achievement requires rigor and hard work, and that’s the message we need to convey to our young people.”

Johnson then left the hearing room, but Klawe used the first part of her answer to a question from another senator to respond to Johnson’s comments. “I’d just like to say that making something cool and fun doesn’t mean that you are taking away the rigor. They are not in opposition.”

In brief comments to ScienceInsider after the hearing, Chairman Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV)—who is retiring next year—said that he “agrees completely” with Alexander’s prescription for the committee and that a budget doubling remains an important goal of the reauthorization. He said that the committee is “interested in all points of view” on the administration’s controversial plan to reorganize STEM education, which has drawn sharp criticism from the community and from many legislators.

The commerce committee is taking the lead in preparing new legislation, which in previous rounds was a joint effort of the two other Senate panels that oversee energy and education. The fact that Alexander is the ranking member of the education panel, however, suggests that Rockefeller has already laid the groundwork for a bipartisan approach. Rockefeller declined to say when the committee would be ready to circulate a draft bill but noted that it was a top priority for the panel.