Today the House voted to pass a revised version of the America COMPETES Act, a bill that would reauthorize several key science agencies and STEM Education programs, completing an unlikely resurrection of a bill most in the science advocacy community (including this correspondent) figured was dead in this session.

COMPETES has been through quite a legislative rollercoaster on its trip through Congress and has emerged at the end significantly leaner. The version the House granted final approval of today has been trimmed significantly since its original passage — the Senate having shed the bill of a number of controversial tech-transfer and tech-innovation programs, cut the authorization amounts for NSF, NIST and DOE Office of Science, and removed the Networking and Information Technology R&D (NITRD) Program reauthorization and the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) from the package. The resulting “clean” package was far more palatable to Senate Republicans who had opposed the House version of the bill, and the Senate was able to find time on its calendar late on Sunday  to pass the bill by unanimous consent.

Unfortunately, the Senate managed to find time on its calendar because the Democratic leadership wasn’t able to strike a deal on passage of a Omnibus Appropriations bill that would have contained — along with funding for all the operations of government — real funding increases for NSF and NIST in FY 11. Instead, the Senate leadership pulled the omnibus legislation and has passed a so-called “Continuing Resolution” (CR) that would keep the government running at the FY 10 budget levels through March 4, 2011. The House is expected to agree to the March 4th CR this evening.

But despite actual appropriations being left up in the air for science agencies, it is still  symbolic that both chambers decided to use precious closing-session floor time to debate and ultimately authorize increases for science funding. Advocates for science can now at least point to these authorized levels as a target for appropriators as the new Congress convenes in January.

And what did legislators ultimately approve? The Alliance for Science and Technology Research in America (ASTRA) has put together a handy comparison chart (pdf) showing the various authorization levels approved along COMPETES bumpy path. In short, here’s where NSF and NIST finished up:

  • National Science Foundation: Authorized for three years with a total increase of nearly 20 percent over the three years, compared to the agency’s FY 10 budget. Under the plan, NSF would grow by 7.2 percent in FY 11.
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology: Authorized for three years with a total increase of 21.4 percent over FY 10. Under the plan NIST would grow 7.3 percent in FY 11.
  • DOE Office of Science: Authorizes a 14 percent increase in DOE’s R&D programs over three years. Includes $900 million in authorization for DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) over three years.

The bill passed by a vote of 228 to 130, on an essentially party-line vote. Sixteen Republicans did cross the aisle to vote for the measure, though.

We’ll have more on what’s actually in the revised COMPETES Act in a future post. For now, the bill’s passage is about the only cause for celebration we’re likely to get as this Congress comes to a close. And given the changing tenor in Washington, it may be the only thing we celebrate for much of the next one, too…

Update: (12/22/2010) — The White House has weighed in. A snippet:

Passage of the Act comes at a crucial time in our Nation’s economic and technological trajectory—a time that President Obama characterized last month as a “Sputnik moment.” Just as Americans in 1957 quickly grasped the significance of the Soviet Union’s historic launch of the world’s first artificial satellite—responding aggressively with new investments in research and development (R&D) and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education—Americans today are recognizing that we are once again on the brink of a new world. The decisions we make today about how we invest in R&D, education, innovation, and competitiveness will profoundly influence our Nation’s economic vitality, global stature, and national security tomorrow.

Here’s the whole post.

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