[With this post, CRA welcomes Kayla Holston, our new Eben Tisdale Science Policy Fellow, who will be working with CRA policy staff this summer. Kayla is a rising second-year Rodman Scholar at the University of Virginia, pursuing majors in biomedical engineering and cognitive science. She’s particularly interested in computing as it relates to neuroscience research, and plans of a future practicing neurosurgery. We’re thrilled to have her on staff this summer and expect to see much more from her on the blog in the weeks to come! – Peter Harsha]

The Senate is considering S. 1398, or the “Energy Title of America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015,” a bill aimed at “extending, improving, and consolidating energy research and development programs” at the Department of Energy, specifically at the Office of Science (SC) and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). In simple terms, it sets funding policy for these two science agencies for the next three years. This bill was introduced by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) in mid-May and is currently awaiting consideration by the Senate Energy Committee. The bill calls for an increase in funding for the DOE SC and ARPA-E and the funding numbers are aligned with the 2007 and 2010 COMPETES Acts. In addition, it proposes the elimination of a number of duplicative programs at the Department, a number of which are research fellowships. Let’s look at some of the details.

The funding numbers for both the DOE SC and ARPA-E are quite good and are true successors to early versions of COMPETES. As our readers will recall, the DOE SC is home to the Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program, a program that encompasses much of the Department’s computing research. S.1398 calls for the DOE SC to be authorized at $5.271 billion for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016, a 2.7 percent increase over the pervious Fiscal Year budget ($5.131 billion for FY15)—it’s also worth noting that this is almost identical to the $5.247 billion authorized (but never appropriated) for FY11 in the 2010 COMPETES Act. After FY16, the proposed funding for the SC continues to exhibit an upward trend, with about a 4 percent increase each year:

FY17: $5.485 billion
FY18: $5.704 billion
FY19: $5.932 billion
FY20: $6.178 billion

It is important to note that, while the proposed FY16 funding is greater than what was appropriated in FY15, it is still below President Obama’s requested budget for FY16 ($5.34 billion).

S. 1398 proposes a similar funding pattern for ARPA-E. The Agency was authorized for $300 million in the original 2007 version of COMPETES, but has been mostly flat funded since its establishment. In S. 1398, Senator Alexander proposes a yearly ~4 percent increase in funding, aligning the numbers with what was originally proposed in the COMPETES Acts:

FY16: $291.2 million
FY17: $303.3 million
FY18: $314.7 million
FY19: $327.3 million
FY20: $340.6 million

It’s worth pointing out that S. 1398 only authorizes funds—it does not appropriate funding for the agencies. In other words, this bill would set policy for these parts of the DOE and state how much they should be funded. It is the job of the Appropriations Committees and separate bills to determine how much money DOE SC and ARPA-E actually get to work with.

Alexander also proposes the consolidation of a few programs. Namely, S. 1398 would combine funding for the DOE Early Career Awards for Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Researchers and the Distinguished Scientist Program. The bill also calls for elimination of the Protecting America’s Competitive Edge (PACE) Graduate Fellowship Program, with the idea that those grants will instead fall under the Science Education Program.

So what are the bill’s prospects? That’s unclear at this point. It’s not exactly clear whether the bill will move in the Senate as a free-standing bill, or get folded into a broader DOE authorization, or a Senate version of the COMPETES Reauthorization. What we do know is that it represents a marked change of approach from the DOE provisions in the House version of the America COMPETES Act Reauthorization, which we’ve previously discussed here. At some point in the legislative process, whether its with a COMPETES Reauthorization or an Energy Bill, the House and Senate will have to resolve their differences and find something they can both pass. What that final bill will look like is anyone’s guess, but from the community’s perspective, we hope it embodies more of the Senate’s approach than what we find in the House COMPETES Reauthorization.

We will continue to monitor S. 1398 for additional developments; be sure to check back for updates!

On May 20th the full House Appropriations Committee passed the Commerce, Justice, Science funding bill; this is important to our community because it is the bill that contains the funding for the National Science Foundation, which funds 89 percent of all university-led fundamental computer science research in the U.S. First, the not-so-bad news: NSF doesn’t exactly get a budget cut in actual dollars; it in fact gets a small bump (though when inflation is considered, that bump may go away completely). The worse news: NSF gets some onerous language on how to spend the tax-dollars it’s allocated. Let’s get into the details.

NSF received $7.34 billion in Fiscal Year (FY) 2015, the present budget we are working under. For FY16, the President requested $7.72 billion, or an increase of $379.3 million (or 5.2 percent) over FY15 levels. In the House Appropriations bill, the agency would receive $7.39 billion in FY16, an increase of $50 million (or 0.7 percent). Again, it’s an increase in actual dollars – so things could have been worse. But the bill contains some disheartening language restricting the agency’s activities.

The most significant section concerns restricting how money in NSF’s Research and Related Activities account, where most of the money for research resides, can be spent. The relevant section reads:

The Committee directs NSF to ensure that Mathematical and Physical Sciences; Computer and Information Science and Engineering; Engineering; and Biological Sciences comprise no less than 70 percent of the funding within Research and Related Activities. Further, the Committee directs that NSF allocate no less than the fiscal year 2015 levels for the Office of International Science and Engineering; Integrative Activities; and the U.S. Arctic Commission.

This language would force Geosciences (funded at $1.3 billion in FY15) and Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (funded at $272 million in FY15) to share roughly $1.32 billion in funding. The combined budget of the two directorates in FY15 was $1.58 billion, so this language translates into a cut of about $257 million to the two directorates, or 16.3 percent. This is in line with the authorization levels passed by the House Science Committee in their bill H.R. 1806 the America COMPETES Act of 2015, which CRA has stated it opposes.

Of almost equal concern, the Appropriations Committee included the following section concerning, “Transparency and accountability:”

The Committee supports section 106 of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015, H.R. 1806, as reported, that enhances transparency and accountability of NSF grants by requiring that public award abstracts articulate how the projects serve the national interest. The Committee understands that NSF has already taken steps to implement these transparency processes. NSF is directed to comply with section 106 and provide periodic updates to the Committee on its transparency activities.

As our readers will recall from last year, a similar section to Section 106 is one of the areas that CRA has had significant concerns over, as it puts unnecessary bureaucratic burdens on the agency and is already covered in legislation which founded NSF. While the original language in the section was much worse than what the committee ended up with in COMPETES, we believe it still creates an unnecessary level of bureaucracy and provides a “fix” to a process that isn’t truly broken.

The only other issue of note to our community is a short section on high-performance computing. The committee’s language urges NSF to continue its commitment to the field by modernizing its facilities. Here is the relevant text:

The Committee urges NSF to continue its commitment to modernizing its world-class big data and high-performance computing, which support all areas of scientific research and education, including the most demanding scientific challenges.

So, where do things go from here? The bill now moves to the House floor for consideration; it is likely to pass along a party-line vote, just as it did in committee. It is expected on the House floor as early as today but probably take a day or two to get to a final vote. On the other side of Congress, the Senate Appropriations Committee still needs to complete its own CJS bill. When that will happen also isn’t yet known; the Senate has been the bottleneck in the Appropriations process for the last number of years. But with a new Republican majority, there is a chance that the chamber will move more quickly. Even if that happens, we would not expect a Senate CJS bill until the end of June, at the earliest. We can hope for a better outcome there, but that is not guaranteed. Assuming the Senate gets their bill together, the two chambers will then have to come up with an agreed upon bill in conference, which would then have to be passed by both chambers, before being sent to the President’s desk. That’s still a long way away, so we will have to wait to see how events unfold over the coming summer.

Be sure to check back for more updates on the Fiscal Year 2016 budget.

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The House of Representatives today will consider the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015 (H.R. 1806), a bill designed to set policy at three key science agencies and authorize funding for the next two fiscal years. The bill is being brought to the floor by House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), who secured passage of the bill through his committee on a strict party-line vote. CRA raised concerns about the bill at the committee level citing issues with the funding levels authorized and a disagreement over significant cuts the bill would make to authorizations for the Social, Behavioral and Economic sciences as well as the Geosciences — concerns that remain as the bill moves to the House floor.

The bill is a reauthorization of the America COMPETES Acts of 2007 and 2010, bills which sought to authorize robust and sustainable investments in fundamental research at three key Federal science agencies: the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institute of Standards of Technology (NIST), and Department of Energy’s Office of Science. They were inspired by a conclusion reached by the National Academies that the U.S. was woefully underinvesting in the physical sciences (which, in DC parlance, is anything that’s not life science) and that underinvestment was constraining U.S. innovation and competitiveness in an increasingly competitive world. They set the three agencies on a funding trajectory that would authorize a doubling of their research budgets over seven years. They were both strong, bipartisan statements about the importance of investments of fundamental research and the priority the Federal government ought to place on them. Unfortunately, the current bill does not share that priority and does not set these agencies on a path to robust, sustainable investments in research.

We’ve written about the concerns we raised with the committee. Though the bill provides a healthy increase to the NSF Computing and Information Science and Engineering directorate in the first year of the authorization (FY 2016), it does so at the expense of the geosciences, and the social, behavioral and economic sciences. We believe that these cuts are detrimental to not just the research portfolios in those disciplines, but detrimental to computer science as well. Work in computer science — in cyber security, in human-computer interaction — is informed by work that comes from the social, behavioral and economic sciences. Understanding human interactions and motivations is crucial in understanding how to build hardware and software that is more secure and easy to use.

CRA is not alone among scientific societies in opposing H.R. 1806. Forty-three other societies, universities, coalitions and task forces joined in writing letters of concern about the measure. Despite that, it’s likely that the bill will pass, on a largely party-line vote, in the House today. This would be a disappointing result, not just because of the content of this particular bill, but because it signals a particularly partisan approach to setting science policy that Congress has largely avoided in past years. Federal science policy is too important to pass on a party-line vote.

 

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