Screenshot 2015-04-22 12.30.40The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology is currently marking up the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015 (H.R. 1806), introduced by Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) — a bill designed to provide three key science agencies with authorizations for funding for FY 2016 and FY 2017 and implement other policies. The bill is cast as a reauthorization of the original America COMPETES Act of 2007, which, inspired by the seminal National Academies report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, was a bipartisan attempt to buttress Federal support the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in recognition of the critical role they play in fostering U.S. innovation and competitiveness in an increasingly competitive world. That original bill attempted to put those agencies on a path to doubling their research budgets over seven years — an important symbolic goal that demonstrated Congress’ commitment to support the physical sciences (which, in DC parlance, is anything not in the life sciences) after years of relative underinvestment.

H.R. 1806 also would authorize funding at NSF, DOE’s Office of Science, and NIST, as well as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, but does not provide for the steady and real growth in the Federal investment in research called for by the Gathering Storm report or enacted by past COMPETES authorizations. While the bill includes authorized increases for some programs in FY 2016, the bill holds agency funding flat in FY 2017 — and that means a cut in real dollars when inflation is considered.

Though the bill also shows strong support for investments in computing research at NSF and DOE, it does so at the expense of other science disciplines, including the social, behavioral and economic sciences (SBE) and geosciences (GEO). CRA, along with many partners in the science community, opposes this approach, especially given the importance of research in fields like SBE in informing computing research — particularly in computing areas like cyber security research and human-computer interaction. The insight into human behaviors provided by SBE is critical to understanding how best to design and implement hardware and software that are more secure and easier to use.

For these reasons, CRA opposes passage of H.R. 1806 as introduced. CRA released the following letter to Committee Chair Lamar Smith and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) explaining our lack of endorsement.

April 21, 2015

The Honorable Lamar Smith
Chairman
House Committee on Science, Space and Technology
2321 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

The Honorable Eddie Bernice Johnson
Ranking Member
House Committee on Science, Space and Technology
394 Ford House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Chairman Smith and Ranking Member Johnson,

As an organization representing over 200 PhD-granting departments in computing, 16 industrial computing research labs, and 6 affiliated computing societies, we commend you both on your long-standing efforts to support the Federal investment in fundamental computing research. While we are pleased to see elements of that support continue in the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015 (H.R. 1806), other concerns — including the overall level of support provided to key science agencies in the act — prevent us from offering our endorsement of the bill.

In particular, we are disappointed to note that the bill, by flat-funding science agencies in the second year of authorizations, fails to provide for steady and real growth in the Federal investment in research, something we believe is critical to our Nation’s ability to compete, prosper and be secure in the coming years and decades. Indeed, when inflation is considered, the authorizations for FY 2017 represent real reductions in research investments, including investments in computing research.

We are also disappointed to note that research at the National Science Foundation in the Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) sciences, along with the Geosciences, would be curtailed under this authorization. As you are aware, research in several key areas of computing — including cyber security and human-computer interaction (HCI) — is significantly informed by work emanating from the SBE directorate. The insight into human behaviors provided by SBE-funded work is critical to understanding how best to design and implement hardware and software systems that are more secure and easier to use. In cyber security work, where the human is often the weakest link in the chain, it is especially crucial to understand the varying motivations and usage patterns that dictate how people interact with their machines, and the expertise in studying those issues in large part resides in the social, behavioral and economic sciences. In HCI work, expertise in social, behavioral and economic sciences is critically valuable in creating workplace systems that foster collaboration and creativity, creating disaster response systems that influence people to effectively find shelter and assistance, and creating systems that motivate medical adherence and compliance with medical treatment.

We would be happy to work with you and your staff to help address these concerns and create legislation we could support wholeheartedly. However, as the act stands, we are unable to offer our endorsement.

Sincerely,

J Strother Moore
Chair

Information on the ongoing markup, including a live stream, can be found here. CRA joins with a large number of academic, scientific and industry groups in opposition to H.R. 1806. We’ll have more detail about the results of the markup soon. 

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Tonight the House narrowly passed an omnibus FY15 appropriations measure that would fund 11 of 12 annual appropriations bills and provide stop-gap funding for the 12th (the Homeland Security bill), a move that would provide increases for the National Science Foundation and for key computing programs at the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The Senate must still approve the bill. The Federal government continues to operate under a “continuing resolution” that expires at midnight tonight (Thursday, Dec. 11th). Because it’s likely the Senate won’t complete their work by then, the House is prepared to pass a two-day extension of the CR to give the Senate additional time.

The $1.1 trillion spending bill faced opposition from Democrats and conservative Republicans (for different reasons) and almost failed to pass a procedural vote in the House earlier in the afternoon after a group of conservative Republicans voted against the rule that would allow the bill to be considered on the House floor. The group was concerned that spending cuts in the bill didn’t go far enough and did nothing to block the President’s recent actions on immigration. Some arm-twisting of Democrats by President Obama secured enough votes for the measure to pass it 219-206.

Here are a few items of interest to the computing research community in the 1600 page bill:

  • The National Science Foundation would receive an increase of $172 million, or about 2.4 percent over its FY14 budget. The House had approved a slightly larger increase (3.3 percent) in its version of the Commerce Justice, Science Appropriations Act passed earlier this year and the Senate appropriations committee had approved a slightly lower increase (1.2 percent) in its version. The final bill doesn’t quite split the difference. The bill would bring the agency’s total budget to $7.3 billion, $89 million more than the President requested for FY15. From the additional funding the committee wants more work targeted at “advanced manufacturing, and for research in cybersecurity and cyber-infrastructure” and $21 million in new funding for the NSF’s activities in the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, including work in computational models, visualization techniques, innovative technologies and “the underlying data and data infrastructure needed to transform our understanding of these areas.”

    While not as big as win as outgoing House CJS Chair Frank Wolf had hoped for the agency, the $172 million increase still represents a win given the flat or declining funding many other important programs received in the bill.

  • The bill holds Dept. of Energy’s Office of Science flat — it would receive the same funding as in FY14. Despite the flat funding for the office, the Advanced Scientific Computing Research program would receive a $62 million increase, matching the agency request for FY15. In fact, ASCR joins the Fusion Research program as the only two Office of Science programs called out for increases in the bill. Included in the ASCR funding is $91 million for the Department’s Exascale computing efforts; $104 million for Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility; $80 million for Argonne LCF; $75 million for NERSC; and $3 million for the Computational Sciences Graduate Fellowship program, a program CRA joined with the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) in both 2013 and 2014 to urge Congress to continue. (And they have.)

  • ARPA-E would remain flat-funded.

  • NIST would receive a slight bump. NIST’s Science and Technical Research and Services (STRS) account would increase to $675.5 million in FY15. Included in that is $15 million for the National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence, up to $60.7 million for cybersecurity R&D; $4 million for cybersecurity education; and $16.5 million for the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace.

  • Defense Department Basic Research (6.1) would increase $112 million over FY14 to $2.28 billion; Applied Research (6.2) would dip $38 million below FY14 to $4.61 billion; and Advanced Technology Development (6.3) would increase $155 million to $5.53 billion. DARPA would increase $136 million to $2.91 billion in FY15.

For those interested in perusing what is being called the “Cromnibus” (continuing resolution (CR) + omnibus…sigh) here’s a link to the legislative language and all the agreed upon explanatory statements. With the House passage, it’s likely the Senate will follow suit — if not by the midnight Thursday deadline, then by midnight Saturday under an extended CR. If Senate passage isn’t possible, it’s thought the GOP leadership might opt for a 3 month CR extension. But I think the expectation at this point is for passage in the Senate and a quick signature from the President.

Whatever happens, we’ll bring you the details!

Photo by BrownGuacamole

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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.