A key congressional committee is planning a hearing next month on legislation that could give several U.S. science agencies new marching orders. The details are still a secret, but expect fireworks.
The legislation has been drafted by the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in the U.S. House of Representatives. It would update the America COMPETES Act, which 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 (NIST) as well as science education across several agencies. It also set government-wide science priorities to be managed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The 2007 law adopted many of the recommendations in a 2005 report from the National Academies on how to keep the country competitive in a global economy. In addition to authorizing large budget increases for those agencies, the bill advocated for a new energy technology effort at DOE, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. It also called for several initiatives to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.
Endorsed by President George W. Bush, America COMPETES received broad bipartisan support in Congress. That bipartisanship had evaporated by 2010, however, when Democrats narrowly won approval to reauthorize the law despite persistent Republican attacks on the scope of the legislation and its spending targets.
In the current divided Congress—Republicans took control of the House in January 2011 while the Democrats retained the Senate—the bickering over federal science policy has intensified. And this year, under its new chairman, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), the House science committee has sometimes found itself at odds with the scientific community as well.
One major bone of contention has been Smith’s proposal this spring to revamp peer review at NSF. Called the High Quality Research Act, it stressed the importance of economic payoffs from NSF’s research portfolio. The draft bill triggered an avalanche of criticism from the scientific committee, and it was never formally introduced. However, lobbyists for universities and science groups fear that similar language will find its way into the new bill.
Simultaneously, NSF officials have been wrestling with a congressional mandate that limits funding for political science research to projects that promote economic development or address national security issues. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) in March inserted the language into a government-wide spending bill, and NSF has suspended making any awards in the field while it tries to find a way to apply the new criteria to its existing peer review process. In addition, the language is part of what many scientists see as a broader attack on NSF support of the social sciences, a topic that is expected to be covered in the draft legislation.
Smith has declined repeated requests to discuss his proposed bill, dubbed the Frontiers in Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act. “The committee will be reviewing draft legislation this fall to reauthorize science agencies within the Committee’s jurisdiction,” says an aide to the committee. “No legislation has been introduced at this time.”
However, ScienceInsider has learned that the committee expects to hold a hearing on 11 October, with a draft expected to be available a week earlier. The bill excludes DOE’s Office of Science, which may be covered in separate legislation.
Science advocates are keeping their powder dry until they see the actual bill. But they are bracing for the worst. As one lobbyist puts it: “We’ve been told that we aren’t going to like it.”