STEM Education Bill Introduced in the House

On July 10, 2014, in STEM, by Brian Mosley

Today the chairman of the House Science Committee introduced H.R. 5031, the “STEM Education Act of 2014’”, to promote STEM education at NSF. The computer science community is a direct beneficiary: the first item in the bill would require federal agencies to include computer science in their definition of STEM.

You’ll recall Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) has been trying to move a reauthorization of the COMPETES Act, called the FIRST Act, but had met with much resistance from both the science advocacy community and the Democrats in the committee minority. That bill’s route to passage promised to be challenging, and ever since a rather contentious markup of the bill its progress has stalled.

However, in the interests of still wanting to do something legislatively, Smith decided to work with the Democratic minority on his committee to break out parts of FIRST to use as stand alone bills. These would be the least contentious and most bipartisan parts of the FIRST Act. This STEM bill is the first of possibly three total bills (the other possible bills are NIST reauthorization and international science cooperation).

As for specifics of the bill, it has three parts (it is actually a very short bill). The first part, which is of most importance to the CS community, is the explicit inclusion of Computer Science in the definition of “STEM education.” The inclusion of CS in STEM is aimed at ensuring that CS won’t get left out of future STEM Ed initiatives at the Federal level (at least at NSF, NASA, NOAA, Energy, and NIST…the agencies under the jurisdiction of the Science Committee). The bill also authorizes STEM agencies to fund research that advances the field of informal STEM education and expands the NSF Noyce Scholarship Program to include awardees with bachelor’s degrees (currently only people with master degrees qualify) and provide funding authorization to support NSF Master Teacher Fellows for a year. All three of these provisions are largely bipartisan and funding neutral.

This bill is very good news for the CS community and the science community as a whole, and hopefully indicates a new embrace of bipartisanship on the committee, after a fairly discordant period.

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[Editor’s Note: This post marks the debut of CRA’s new Tisdale Policy Fellow for Summer 2014, Yiyang Shen. Yiyang is a sophomore at NYU, with an interest in Mathematics and Computer Science, and will spend this summer with CRA working on science policy issues, including tracking the progress of efforts to reauthorize the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Expect to see more of him on the blog!]

On June 11th the Energy Subcommittee, of the House Science, Technology, & Space Committee, held a markup of the Department of Energy Research and Development Act of 2014. Surprisingly, this hearing was very contentious and Democratic members used procedural tactics to obstruct consideration of this bill to reauthorize research and development (R&D) programs at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The hearing was finally adjourned by the Republicans on a party line vote after Democrats refused to waive the reading of the bill.

The markup was originally scheduled at noon, but the subcommittee chairwoman, Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), did not convene the hearing until ~12:10pm. Representative Alan Grayson (D-FL) surprisingly started the “parliamentary game” then, interrupting the chairwoman’s opening remarks by requesting a recorded vote to change the official start time in the subcommittee records. His point of order was ultimately tabled by vote but it signaled Democrats’ strong opposition to the bill.

In her opening statement, Lummis stated that, “the draft bill provides a $250 million increase in funding for basic research. The bill provides deficit reduction by making cuts to outdated, wasteful and duplicative programs within DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.” The main point, as Republicans hold for the previous FIRST Act of 2014, is to use money wisely, provided the limited resources.

In response, the Ranking Member Eric Swalwell (D-CA) conveyed two central problems with this “premature” markup in his opening statement. The first relates to process: the bill was not shared with Democratic members of the Subcommittee until the last Friday before the markup. Given that this 103-page bill proposes to reauthorize all of DOE’s research and development programs, Mr. Swalwell said, “that means we’re being asked to make tough decisions about how to allocate billions of taxpayers’ dollars after having less than three business days to consider the bill.”

Mr. Swalwell then pointed out the second problem the minority has with the bill. The budget for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) is substantially cut; ARPA-E funding is largely reduced; and the bill includes burdensome limitations on what research DOE can fund. In addition, it includes particularly objectionable language that bars the results of DOE-funded R&D activity from being, “used for regulatory assessments or determinations by Federal regulatory authorities.” Specifically, this language is meant to keep the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from using research data to support their operations and any environmental regulations. Of interest to computing researchers, the bill does include increased authorizations for the Advanced Scientific Computing Research activity, ramping the authorization for the program up to $600 million in FY 2015, $59 million more than the President requested.

After hearing the opening remarks from both sides, Ranking Member of the Full Committee, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) also gave a brief comment on the markup that day. She criticized how dysfunctional the committee has become, and strongly opposed the consideration and passage of the bill.

The markup ended awkwardly. After the opening remarks, the bill is then read into the record, a procedural process which is usually dispensed with under unanimous consent. However, in this instance the Democrats used it to their advantage: they withheld their consent and required that the bill be read, in full, into the record. As this would have tied up the subcommittee for hours, the Republicans instead adjourned the meeting.

The prospect of the bill moving forward this summer is unlikely. The real news from this markup is that the House Science Committee has become increasingly polarized and neither side intends to cooperate with the other. This does not bode well for future science legislation.

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.