A report last fall calling for the U.S. government to double spending on basic research in the physical sciences and to bolster science education at all levels has become a rallying cry in Congress. Today, a bipartisan group of lawmakers worried about U.S. innovation offered a package of bills that hew closely to a report by the National Research Council of the National Academies (Science, 21 October 2005, p. 423). It's the third such legislative package in the past month to address the issue (ScienceNOW, 15 December 2005), and science lobbyists hope that together the bills will create irresistible momentum for action.
The newest legislative package, called the Protecting America's Competitive Edge (PACE) Act, includes yearly increases of 10% for basic research funding at the departments of Energy and Defense, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and NASA. It calls for 8% of basic science funds at these agencies--plus the National Institute of Standards and Technology--to be used for high-risk research directed by program managers. The bills repeat calls for new scholarship programs at the undergraduate and graduate level, as well as programs to train new and existing teachers. Tax incentives, visa policy changes, and patent reform are offered as a way to spur corporate innovation.
"The way to keep jobs from going to China and India is to keep our brainpower advantage," says bill co-sponsor Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who along with Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) requested the academies' report. Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), who chairs the Senate Energy Committee, helped write the legislation, and 19 senators from both parties are cosponsoring the bill. The chair of the academies' panel, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, endorses the bills' emphasis on job creation, and the package directly follows many of his panel's recommendations. Even the amount needed to implement the legislation--starting at $9.5 billion in 2007 and increasing gradually over 7 years--mirrors what the Augustine panel had estimated.
Mere passage of this and the other bills won't mean much without concurrence from the committees that actually allocate annual spending levels for each agency. A 2002 law authorizing a 5-year doubling of the NSF budget hasn't happened; Domenici admits that finding money will be tough but says he thinks the new legislation "should have broader support." The focus now turns to President George W. Bush, whose 6 February budget proposal to Congress will set the tone for the debate over 2007 funding levels. Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN), who introduced a cluster of bills last month that drew heavily from the Augustine report, says the president's State of the Union address next Tuesday would be the "perfect setting to signal [White House] endorsement of the prescriptions contained in the academy report."