Computing Research Policy Blog

The Computing Research Association (CRA) has been involved in shaping public policy of relevance to computing research for more than two decades. More recently the CRA Government Affairs program has enhanced its efforts to help the members of the computing research community contribute to the public debate knowledgeably and effectively.

STEM Education Act Signed Into Law

On October 7th President Obama signed into law the STEM Education Act (Public Law No: 114-59; originally introduced as HR 1020). Introduced by House Science, Space, and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Rep. Elizabeth Etsy (D-CT), this legislation has specific importance to the computing community as it expands the federal definition of STEM to include computer science. There has been an ongoing concern that with constrained budgets, research agencies could possibly exclude computer science and related fields from future STEM education efforts; this is because CS doesn’t fall perfectly into any of the areas that make up the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). This legislation specifically closes that potential loophole and reconfirms the field’s STEM status at the federal level.

Additionally, the legislation amends the NSF Noyce Master Teaching Fellowship program to allow teachers in pursuit of Master’s degrees to participate in the program. According to the bill’s sponsors, “this would allow more teachers the opportunity to compete for the grants.” As well, computer science is added as a subject for the scholarship program. Lastly, the legislation directs the National Science Foundation (NSF) to continue to award competitive merit-reviewed grants to support informal STEM education.

This is a big win for the computing education community as it shows policy makers in Congress look favorably on the field. Also, for practical reasons, it makes sure CS can take part in any STEM initiatives the federal research agencies initiate. It’s great to see the field be recognize as so important to the nation’s STEM education investment.

News Catch-up: Congress Avoids Shutdown; Boehner Quits; Budget Still Unsettled

[Update (10/8/15: 12:40 pm): Well, that was quick. McCarthy has apparently withdrawn from the Speaker race and the leadership election has been postponed… ]

[From this month’s Computing Research News]

A last-minute agreement hammered out September 30th between the House and Senate, just hours before the start of the new Federal fiscal year, averted a government shutdown at least through mid-December. But the agreement spelled the end of Rep. John Boehner’s (R-OH) term as Speaker, as he announced his resignation from both the Speakership and his seat in Congress –citing the difficulties of working with an increasingly fractured GOP —  effective October 30th. While the move quiets debate temporarily about the final budgets for Federal agencies, including Federal science agencies in FY 2016, and keeps them open, it casts very little light about how funding will ultimately be resolved by the Congress.

The agreement struck by both chambers and signed by the President, called a Continuing Resolution, will keep the Federal Government operating through December 11, 2015. In the meantime, Congress must decide how to complete work on all twelve unfinished annual appropriations bills necessary to fund the operations of government in the new fiscal year, which began October 1st. In lieu of passing the appropriations bills — which are mired in arguments over Republican adherence to strict spending caps — the continuing resolution will keep Federal agencies and programs running at their current rates of spending until December 11th or the Congress passes and the President signs the unfinished bills, whichever comes first. If Congress fails to resolve the outstanding appropriations bills by December 11th, it will either have to pass another stopgap continuing resolution or the government will shut down as it did last in 2013.

House Speaker Boehner came under extreme pressure in advance of the October 1st funding deadline from conservative members of his party over the nature of the continuing resolution they were willing to approve. Central to the dispute was Federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Conservative Republicans, particularly those members of the Tea Party Caucus in the House, sought to target funding for Planned Parenthood after controversy emerged surrounding money received for the donation of fetal tissue obtained through abortions performed by the organization. Tea Party representatives sought to include provisions in the CR that would strip Federal funding for Planned Parenthood — provisions that would not be approved in the Senate or signed into law by the President.

Though the Tea Party does not represent a majority of the GOP in the House, they represent a significant enough percentage of the party that their opposition to a bill would require the Speaker to find Democratic votes to pass it, a difficult ask on controversial votes like appropriations measures. Boehner, realizing that the Planned Parenthood gambit in the CR would doom its chances of passage and lead to a shutdown of the government, argued strenuously within his own party about pursuing it. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had already reached an agreement with his caucus to pass a so-called “clean CR,” without funding prohibitions for Planned Parenthood, arguing that a CR wasn’t the right legislative vehicle for this particular issue. Boehner faced a less receptive crowd among the Tea Party members in the House. Instead of arguing the point, Boehner apparently bought support for a “clean” CR by indicating he planned to leave the speakership, and the Congress, at the end of the month. The House approved the clean bill on September 30th and the Senate followed quickly thereafter and sent it on to the President, who signed it before the October 1st deadline.

The move signals a rightward power-shift in the House caucus. But ironically, the prohibitive favorite to take over the reins of leadership in the House is current House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who has been more politically moderate than Boehner in the recent past [Note update above — McCarthy has withdrawn from the race, apparently because he did not believe he could win the 218 GOP votes needed]. Whether he can broker an agreement with the Tea Party faction in the GOP to allow spending bills to go forward by the December 11th expiration of the CR remains to be seen. As this goes to press, it appears the both the moderate wing and the conservative wing of the House GOP are pressing for rule changes in the party leadership structure to give their constituencies more of a voice in the leadership of the party before they will allow a vote on certain key leadership positions that will change with Boehner leaving. It is not yet clear whether they will get those changes or if the House will vote on new leadership, as planned, by October 15th.

Whoever constitutes the leadership of the House GOP will have to contend with the influence of the Tea Party caucus going forward, and several key votes will serve as bell-weathers for their effectiveness. The first is the December 11th spending deadline. If McCarthy cannot find a way to build a majority using a block of more fiscally-conservative Democrats, then he may have to acquiesce to Tea Party demands for tighter budget controls, which will likely mean cuts at Federal science agencies in FY 2016. Future votes include the renewal of the Federal Import-Export Bank and an approval of an increase to the Federal debt limit.

In the Senate, McConnell may propose a bipartisan two-year budget agreement as a way of avoiding the impasse. Details of the plan have not yet been released, but conversations with Senate staff indicate that McConnell is pushing for a plan that would hold all Federal spending to an across-the-board 0.2 percent cut for the next two years as a way of providing some certainty to those involved in Federal programs. While a 0.2 percent government-wide cut does not sound like a positive development, it represents an improvement over cuts required to meet the budget caps mandated for Federal spending by the Budget Control Act of 2011, which is current law.

Yet another possibility is that Congress will just punt on FY 2016 appropriations and pass a CR that covers the entire year, holding agency funding flat — prohibiting new hiring or new program starts. While this in many ways would be a bad outcome for the research community — it hamstrings Federal science agencies somewhat in deciding what they can fund in the coming year — it may not actually be the worst case scenario. If Congress does manage to pass FY 2016 appropriations, funding for key agencies like the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy’s Office of science could see even greater cuts to their budgets than the 0.2 percent across-the-board cuts in McConnell’s two-year plan.

We expect to get further clarity on how this budget process for FY 2016 and beyond will shake out after the October 15th leadership elections and, hopefully, before the December 11th expiration of the current CR. As always, we will have all the details in the Computing Research Policy Blog at and in the next issue of CRN.

New Report Identifies Fundamental Research Needs for Advancing Internet of Things & Cutting-Edge Innovations

A new report, titled, “Rebooting the IT Revolution: A Call to Action,” produced by the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) and the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC), calls for, “a targeted and coordinated government initiative similar to that which sparked the semiconductor revolution fifty years ago.” Calling this initiative the “National Computing and Insight Technologies Ecosystem initiative,” or N-CITE, the report identifies critical areas where research, particular federally supported research, is needed in order to position the country to enjoy the full benefit of advances in Big Data and the burgeoning “Internet of Things.”

The report is mainly the product of a workshop titled Rebooting the IT Revolution, held in Washington DC on March 30–31 of this year, which brought together experts from industry, government, and academia to explore “leap-ahead IT technologies.” That workshop identified many “critical areas” where research is needed; from energy-efficient sensing and computing, to intelligent storage, to an Internet of Things test platform, there are a total of eight areas. Read the full list in the executive summary of the report on page 2.

The report also makes the point that the country cannot rely on the private sector alone to fund these innovations. Mentioning many important government research initiatives, that are heavily driven by computing and IT research, such as the National Strategic Computing Initiative and the BRAIN initiative, the report states, “near term, product-driven investment by the private sector alone is not sufficient to create the significant advances in IT infrastructure and insight technologies needed for these innovations. Private sector research and development must build upon and connect to government-funded programs.”

The conclusion to this report makes a clear call to action: “The United States needs to adopt and fund an innovation agenda—built upon fundamental research— that creates a new engine to drive the next generations of human experience, economic and societal progress, security and sustainability.”

CRA Urges Senate Commerce Task Force to Support Robust, Stable Investments in Research

CRA today filed comments with Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Gary Peters (D-MI) urging the senators to put a priority on ensuring that fundamental research in the physical sciences, including computing, sees strong and sustainable growth as the senators work to build bipartisan consensus around a reauthorization of a key science policy bill. CRA Comments on Senate COMPETES Reauthorization

The senators are leading an effort for the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act, a bill first passed in 2007 that signaled the Federal government’s commitment to increasing support for physical science research at the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The committee solicited feedback from the science community as they begin their work on crafting a Senate version of COMPETES. A House version of the bill passed that chamber in May, despite concerns raised by CRA and other members of the science advocacy community about poor funding levels, prioritizations and policy decisions contained in the bill.

Our letter, signed by CRA Chair Susan Davidson, urges the senators to consider three recommendations when crafting their bill:

  • Put a priority on ensuring that fundamental research in the physical sciences, including computing, sees strong and sustainable growth.
  • Ensure that those investments span the full range of disciplines, in recognition of the important role that fields like social science, economics and behavioral science play in informing work in computing and other fields.
  • Provide authorizations of meaningful lengths of time to allow researchers and the agencies that support them more predictability and stability, which will help improve planning around and management of Federal research programs.

The letter then offers the case for Federal funding of computing research as an exemplar of the extraordinary benefit that Federal investment in fundamental research can yield, along with a warning that our leadership in IT isn’t a guarantee:

Our position as the world leader in information technology has clearly paid enormous dividends, but that position is not guaranteed. In many key sectors, including high-performance computing and new areas like ubiquitous computing that comprise the “Internet of Things,” the global competition has grown more fierce. We cannot afford to lose our leadership role.

The Federal investment in computing research is without question one of the best investments the Nation has ever made. The future is bright. There is tremendous opportunity – and tremendous need – for future breakthroughs. The Federal Government’s essential role in fostering these advances – in supporting fundamental research across fields – must continue.

The senators have held three briefings on topics related to innovation policy since announcing their efforts to reauthorize COMPETES. Their request for comment period ends today, so we expect to learn more about their approach very soon, with hopefully a bill produced by early Fall that could earn bipartisan support.

Appropriations Update: Shutdown Watch Begins

With Congress set to spend the month of August in recess, it’s a good time to take a moment to see where the appropriations process stands. Our readers will remember that when the Republicans took full control of Congress in January, they vowed to return the body to “regular order;” meaning passing the 12 appropriations bills before the end of fiscal year (October 1st). So how have they done?

Surprisingly, pretty well. For the first time in 6 years, both chamber’s Appropriations Committees passed all 12 of their bills through the full committees. The House was even able to pass half of their bills through the full chamber. Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends, as the Senate Democrats felt their priorities were not being considered and they began filibustering the budget process at the end of spring. The bills have not moved for the entire summer.

The House Republican leadership has been adamant for the summer that the process would still move forward. However, just before the House chamber went on recess last week, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) conceded that work on a continuing resolution, to fund federal agencies at Fiscal Year 2015 (FY15) levels, would begin. Now the question is: will there be another government shutdown?

That’s an interesting question and the answer isn’t completely clear. While the shutdown in 2013 was embarrassing for all involved, no one really suffered from the bad press (“Exhibit A” being the Republicans making huge gains in the 2014 elections). As Congress will not have to go before voters for another year, the situation is similar to 2013. Throw in how many sitting members of Congress are running for their party’s presidential nomination, grandstanding on the federal budget now, and forcing a shutdown, is very possible. Also, there is a new threat of tying defunding Planned Parenthood to the budget, which Congressional Democrats have vowed to block, and President Obama has vowed to veto if passed. So there are plenty of reasons to see a shutdown as possible.

The flipside of this argument is that senior members of Congress, the members who were furious about the 2013 shutdown and who ultimately compromised to reopen the government, will not allow the budget to be hijacked again. Also, the Republicans are under a great deal of pressure to be seen as able to govern effectively; a shutdown can be used to show they can’t. As well, since both appropriations committees have done their work (i.e.: preparing their 12 bills), they will require much less time to get an omnibus bill together. Lastly, a presidential election is not a midterm election; the voters who come out are less partisan, and care more about the parties working together, and a memory of two shutdowns in four years may be too much for voters to forget.

The science policy community in Washington is divided between pessimists and optimists on the budget:

  • The pessimists see a shutdown as very likely, and a year long CR as the final outcome. This would not be good for anyone, as budget sequestration is still set to restart in October. Any across-the-board cuts would be worsened by the cuts due to inflation.
  • The optimists see a continuing resolution, or a series of CRs, until the end of the year, with no shutdown, and another grand budget deal (like the Ryan-Murray Budget Agreement happening then. This is more likely to be good, but there are no guarantees, especially for science accounts.

Of course, these outcomes aren’t the only possibility, just the likely outcomes. Both sides have their arguments, but it is still very much “reading tea leaves” at this point. We’ll have to get through the August Recess first, and see how much progress, or lack there-of, happens on CR negotiations. Keep checking back for more updates.