On May 22nd the House Science Committee took up the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (or FIRST) Act of 2014. The bill’s lead sponsor is the House Science Committee chairman, Lamar Smith (R-TX). This bill is to reauthorize the majority of the America COMPETES Act of 2010, and focuses on the non-energy agencies (NSF, NIST, and OSTP). Sadly, this piece of legislation is neither as visionary for American science, nor as supportive of said science, as its predecessor bill.

To get right into the problems with the bill, first, it only authorizes the agencies for two years; one of which is the current fiscal year (FY14) we are operating in and have approved appropriations. The previous versions of the COMPETES Act authorized the agencies for three years. There were attempts by the Democratic minority to amend the legislation to include a third year, but those were defeated on a party line vote.

In addition, the FIRST Act authorizes very small increases (~1.5 percent) for NSF and NIST (1 percent) in FY15. The FY14 authorized numbers are the same as what was appropriated in the Omnibus, but with one exception: it strips $100 million in authorization from the Social, Behavioral, & Economic Sciences Directorate at NSF. That money seems to be spread around within the other NSF directorates, including about $70 million for CISE in FY15. Again, there were amendments offered by Democrats to reverse these cuts, but they ultimately failed as all the Republicans voted against them. Though these authorized levels are slightly higher than what is in the President’s FY15 budget request, they still don’t keep up with inflation.

Here is a more complete look at the comparison of the FIRST Act budget numbers versus the last reauthorization of the COMPETES Act.

In addition, the Chairman included troubling language requiring NSF to affirm that all grant awards funded by the Foundation are “worthy of Federal funding” and in the national interest “as indicated by having the potential to achieve:”

  • increased economic competitiveness in the US;
  • advancement of the health and welfare of the American public;
  • development of a STEM workforce and increased public scientific literacy in the US;
  • increased partnerships between academia and industry;
  • support for the national defense;
  • promotion of the progress of science.

This is being referred to as “NSF Accountability,” and is an improvement over what had been circulated in draft versions of the bill. Smith’s original draft was problematic because it required that prior to the award of any funding NSF had to publish on a website the justification for that award (based on the above criteria), along with the name of the employee or employees who made the determination. The version that was included in the final bill strips that language and just requires that public announcement of the award include “a written justification from a responsible Foundation official” that the grant meets the criteria. It’s somewhat better, though it still provides a hook for Congress to call that “responsible Foundation official” on the carpet for any dubious (in their, i.e. Congressional, minds) grant. Of course, Congress already has that power.

In one point of good news for the CS community, the bill includes reauthorization of the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) Program. CRA, along with IEEE-USA, SIAM, and USACM, endorsed this a year ago when it was introduced in a stand-alone bill as the Advancing America’s NITRD Act.

Some other news that came out of this markup:

  • An amendment by Rep. Broun (R-GA) passed on a voice vote to cut the FY15 authorized levels for the Office of Science Technology Policy by $1M (original it would $5.55M; now it is $4.55M);
  • There was a bipartisan amendment to change the Open Access provisions in the bill to be more in line with what OSTP and the Obama Administration are already doing on this subject.

To get a fuller picture of what happened at the hearing, here are two good articles by Jeffrey Mervis at Science.

The next step for the FIRST Act will be consideration on the full House floor. Passage is likely, though in what form is an interesting question. There is always a possibility that fiscally conservative elements of the Republican Party will propose amendments to strip out even more funding. As well, there could be other amendments to restrict what types of research the science agencies can spend Federal funds on. Whether any of those types of amendments will pass the full House is an open question. As well, it’s unlikely that there will be any successful amendments to restore or increase funding; the environment of Washington is one of austerity right now.

The two possible silver linings in all this is that, first, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is expected to release their version of a COMPETES reauthorization any week now. The hope within the science community is that it will be a more true reauthorization of COMPETES and will be more bipartisan in nature. The second silver lining is that FIRST is an authorizing bill, which means this is only covers how NSF can spend its money (rather than an appropriations bill which determines how much money NSF gets). Current year funding for NSF has already been determined and is unlikely to be impacted by this bill, assuming it gets signed into law. As well, next year’s funding levels have already passed the House Appropriations Committee, and they did not incorporate the FIRST Act levels in what they approved (FYI: The CJS bill will be on the House floor today for voting; we are expecting amendments to be offered to bring it in line with the SBE authorizations in FIRST, but it’s an open question as to whether they will pass). We’ll keep our readers posted on further developments with this legislation.

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