R&D and Legislative Priorities: Senate Edition


The Senate Majority and Minority leaders announced yesterday their respective parties’ “legislative priorities” for the new session of Congress, highlighting different perspectives on the relative importance of federal support for R&D.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced that “expanding high-speed Internet access, targeting terrorists, ending tax incentives for U.S. companies located overseas and increasing the minimum wage, among other items, top their agenda,” according to Tech Daily (sub req’d). The Senate Democratic agenda includes a fairly prominent mention of support for federal R&D as part of their efforts to promote “Expanding Economic Opportunity” in Senate bill S. 14:

Strengthen and Restore American Innovative Strength through Commitment to Research, Science and Technology.  Research and development results in higher quality jobs, better and safer products and higher productivity among American businesses.  U.S. economic strength is dependent on its leadership in science and technology, and the U.S. is losing ground to foreign competitors.  The U.S. needs to re-commit itself to the value of public investment in research and development, which is being outpaced by investment in the private sector.  This bill makes permanent a tax credit for entities that increase their research activities and makes a credit available to consortia of entities that research collaboratively.  The bill also expresses support for legislation that will increase federally funded research at the National Science Foundation, the Office of Science at the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Science and Technology so we can better compete in the international economy, as well investment in math, science and technology programs at our secondary education institutions. 

Also included in the Senate Democratic Agenda (under the same bill) is language aimed at encouraging broadband deployment:

America continues to fall behind our competitors in access to broadband internet service.  Most of the communities lacking service are in rural and economically-distressed areas of the country.  S. 14 expands broadband availability to these areas by allowing broadband service providers to immediately deduct one-half of the cost of their investment in equipment to provide current generation broadband access to rural and underserved areas. 

Of course, these sorts of proposals are a bit easier to make when you’re not in the majority, but it’s encouraging to see them featured so prominently nonetheless.
On the Senate Republican side, overt mentions of support for federal R&D are a little harder to find. Senate bill S.4 in the Senate Republican’s Top Ten (pdf), the “Healthy America Act” recognizes that health information technology can make health care more affordable and supports the adoption of standards that might make Electronic Health Records feasible — but other than noting that the recommendation is similar to a PITAC recommendation along the same lines in the committee’s Health and Information Technology report (pdf), and that the PITAC also recommended significant R&D in the area to address considerable challenges, it’s probably a stretch to call that a ringing endorsement of federal R&D.
Tech Daily reports that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) also mentioned

technology initiatives to better prepare for, respond to and prevent terrorist attacks. Frist said Republicans would put forward a bill approved last year that would help transfer advanced technologies from federal departments and agencies to state and local “first responders” to emergencies.

But again, certainly not a ringing endorsement of fundamental research.
Lest I make it seem like this perception of the importance of federal R&D support is strictly a partisan difference, I’ll quote an interesting passage in Newt Gingrich’s new book, Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America. Gingrich still wields some influence in the party, though obviously not nearly the clout he once had as Speaker and the leader of the Republican Revolution that took back the House in ’94. He clearly “gets” R&D:

INVESTING IN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH
The research budget of the United States should be considered part of the national security budget. Investing in science (including math and science education) is the most important strategic investment we make in continued American leadership economically and militarily. Investing in science has also been the most consistent, powerful, single mechanism for extending life and for improving the quality of life. When developing the federal budget, the investment in science should be considered immediately after operational military requirements and before any of the traditional domestic spending programs.
Congress should consider establishing a separate budget line item for federal research and protecting it from encroachment by all the interest groups who want immediate gratification for their projects. Special interests can find funding for highways, subsidies to farmers, and public housing. For a variety of reasons scientists and those who believe in science have a harder time making a ‘pork barrel’ or special interest appeal for more money.
In the next few years the requirements are pretty straight forward.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) should increase at a rate that allows it to sustain its current research program. Having recently doubled the NIH budget, Congress does not need to double it again immediately. Congress should be aware, however, of the crippling impact of a flat budget when research opportunities and needs are growing.
The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) budget should be tripled over the next five years. The Foundation is the engine of basic research for the United States, and most of our modern medical advances have come as the result of basic research initially funded by the NSF.
The specialized agencies, the laboratories at the Department of Energy, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the national Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should all be asked to develop a master plan for the science they could do if properly funded. Funding should follow proportionate to the research they can explain and defend.
The Department of Energy has an opportunity to transform the entire energy economy (and the American balance of trade) through its work on hydrogen. If the Department of Energy succeeds in developing a commercially sustainable hydrogen market, its impact on the environment, the economy, and national security will be extraordinary. This project deserves as big an investment as it can reasonably use.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology has been leading the way in researching quantum mechanics and its work needs to be continued.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has enormous opportunities in ocean science and in understanding global climate change. A society that may end up spending trillions to avoid global climate change should be willing to spend 1 percent as much understanding this topic.
The yardstick should be very simple: What are our children’s future and our grandchildren’s future worth to us? What are the breakthroughs that might accelerate our economy, save our lives, and protect our national worth to us? From that baseline we should develop our research budget each year.

Thanks to Barry Toiv of AAU for the quote.

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R&D and Legislative Priorities: Senate Edition