In a surprising move today, the House of Representatives passed S. 3084, “The American Innovation and Competitiveness Act.” We say surprising because the majority of House Members aren’t actually in town. The House remains in pro forma session – not officially adjourned for good (or sine die), just keeping enough presence in the chamber to prevent President Obama from making any recess appointments. But because they’re not actually adjourned, non-controversial bills have a chance to be considered under unanimous consent rules, even if most members aren’t around to vote on them. By agreement, only bills that aren’t objected to by any Member can be brought up during these pro forma sessions – and AICA apparently qualified, meaning the bill passed the House and will now be sent to the President for signature. The Senate had already passed S. 3084 on December 10th, also with unanimous consent.
Our regular readers will recall that the Senate Commerce Committee had passed their version of COMPETES back in June, while the House Science Committee passed their more controversial bill last year. CRA supported the Senate version but opposed the House bill. The language that is being sent to President Obama is a compromise bill but is predominantly the Senate version.
The first item of importance is what is not in the bill: authorized funding levels for NSF and NIST. This is both a good and bad development. It’s bad because we would like to see a strong statement from Congress on the importance of funding scientific research. On the flip side, and given the present environment in Congress on constraining federal spending, it’s probably good that there are not low funding levels passed into law. Also, chances are good that the only way this bill moved in the Senate (and cleared the House) is that it was silent on spending. So take this development as you will; the appropriations battle, which is separate from an authorization bill, will still need to be fought next year.
The bill also includes a reauthorization of the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Program (or NITRD). The bill adds additional responsibilities to the program in the original High Performance Computing Act: “provide for research on the interplay of computing and people, including social computing and human-robot interaction;” “provide for research on cyber-physical systems and improving the methods available for the design, development, and operation of those systems that are characterized by high reliability, safety, and security;” “provide for the understanding of the science, engineering, policy, and privacy protection related to networking and IT;” and, “provide for the understanding of the human facets of cyber threats and secure cyber systems.” The bill also makes some descriptive changes to computing subfields; this is mainly in the interest of updating terminology to align better with what things are called in the discipline, and is in no way prescriptive.
The bill also adds two other sections from the House version — a section requiring NSF to report NSF-funded researchers who intentionally misrepresent results to other federal agencies, and a section authorizing the National Research Council to do a study of research reproducibility and recommend to NSF ways for improving rigor and transparency in scientific research.
Finally, the bill includes language authorizing a grant program in computer science education research, including research into models of pre-service preparation for teachers who will teach computer science and computational thinking, professional development, tools and models for teaching and learning aimed at increasing diversity and inclusion, and high-quality learning opportunities for teaching CS in poor, rural or tribal schools.
The final step for this bill to become law is for President Obama to sign it before the end of the year; seeing as this bill is in no way controversial, it’s likely to be signed immediately. The passage of this act caps a number of years of work from a lot of people in both chambers of Congress and the science advocacy community. At times very contentious, it’s good to see that the final outcome is something everyone is able to live with (and do so unanimously).