Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX), the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, is among those opposed to the recently introduced FIRST Act.

U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology/Democrats

Opposed. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX), the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, is among those opposed to the recently introduced FIRST Act.

Updated: FIRST Bill Draws Early Opposition

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

University groups and Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have begun to weigh in on a legislative proposal by Republicans to reshape a major chunk of the U.S. government’s science funding enterprise—and so far there’s a lot of skepticism.

A prominent scientific society today also released an analysis that compares funding levels proposed by the Republican bill and a competing proposal from Democrats. The two parties are taking "vastly different" approaches, concludes budget analyst Matthew Hourihan of AAAS in Washington, D.C., which publishes ScienceInsider.

On Tuesday, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, introduced a bill—the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act (H.R. 4186)—that would shape key research, education, and policy programs at the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. It is intended to be a follow-on to the COMPETES Act of 2010, which also covered programs at the Energy and Commerce departments. (Smith plans to deal with many of those programs in a separate bill.)

Under discussion for about a year, FIRST includes a number of provisions that have drawn criticism from research and university groups. Some of those concerns are likely to be aired Thursday, when a subcommittee of the House science panel is scheduled to debate and vote on the measure, which will then move to the full committee.

In a press release, Smith said FIRST is intended to help the United States remain globally competitive and ensure “that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.”

“Unless we act swiftly, American researchers will continue to fall behind in supercomputing and particle physics. And we risk losing our lead in nano-technology, the health sciences, aerospace, lasers and other crucial areas. To reverse this trend, the FIRST Act increases investments for basic research in critical areas such as biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, engineering and mathematics. Advances in these fields drive innovation, create jobs and keep our economy strong.

“Unfortunately, NSF has misused taxpayer dollars and funded too many questionable research grants - money that could have gone to higher priorities. For example, how does the federal government justify spending over $220,000 to study animal photos in National Geographic? Or $50,000 to study lawsuits in Peru from 1600 - 1700? We all believe in academic freedom for scientists, but federal research agencies have an obligation to explain to American taxpayers why their money is being used on such research instead of on higher priorities. In a time of constrained federal spending, the FIRST Act protects NSF’s budget in order to keep America on the cutting edge of science.”

The House science panel’s ranking Democrat, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), issued her own press release, calling FIRST a “missed opportunity” and touting her own version of the legislation, the America Competes Reauthorization Act of 2014.

 “[W]hile there may be some Democratic Members whose priorities are reflected in the FIRST Act of 2014, overall it is a missed opportunity. The bill stops much too short of renewing our commitment to maintaining our scientific and technological leadership now and into the future. … I look forward to full committee consideration of the FIRST Act, where we can have a good debate about the merits of the bill and hopefully have the opportunity to strengthen the message it sends.”

The Association of American Universities, composed of 60 major U.S. research universities, and two in Canada, also says FIRST falls short and will oppose the legislation.

“The legislation fails to meet the guiding principles for reauthorization of the COMPETES Act endorsed last year by the business, scientific, and higher education communities.  Among the most important of those principles is to set funding targets for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology that permit real growth for these agencies to stimulate long-term economic prosperity.  The proposed legislation does not even keep pace with inflation for these agencies, whose work is critical to our future national competitiveness.

"For this reason alone, the bill does little to close this nation’s innovation deficit, but it also does some things to widen it, including significant funding cuts to social, behavioral and economic research.  The social and behavioral sciences play a vital role in this nation’s research portfolio.  They contribute significantly to understanding and solving our nation’s economic, health, and security challenges, and they increase the efficiency and efficacy of the cures, technologies, and discoveries made in other disciplines.

"The bill also contains provisions that are duplicative and unnecessary, and others that add federal requirements and cost containment measures that would impede NSF’s ability to perform its mission effectively.  And while the language regarding public access to the results of federally funded research is improved, it remains problematic.”

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), an international group of nearly 800 academic and research libraries, also says it is opposed to the bill. That’s because of a section (303) which would allow publishers to bar free public access to papers based on government-funded research for up to 3 years—longer than the 12-month embargo that is becoming the norm.

“This provision would impose significant barriers to the public’s ability to access the results of taxpayer-funded research,” the group wrote, and “be a step backward from existing federal policy in the directive, and put the U.S. at a severe disadvantage among our global competitors."

“This provision is not in the best interests of the taxpayers who fund scientific research, the scientists who use it to accelerate scientific progress, the teachers and students who rely on it for a high-quality education, and the thousands of U.S. businesses who depend on public access to stay competitive in the global marketplace,” said Heather Joseph, SPARC's executive director. “We will continue to work with the many bipartisan members of the Congress who support open access to publicly funded research to improve the bill.”

*Update, 12 March, 1:05 p.m.: This story has been updated to include a link to the spending analysis of the competing bills.

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