Innovation and Competitiveness: How’d we do?

With the members of the 109th Congress getting ready to leave town this week and not come back until mid-November (giving them plenty of time for last-minute campaigning in their home districts), it seems appropriate to take a look at what they’ve accomplished in addressing some of the innovation and competitiveness issues that have been so well-covered here this year.
Though there was movement on competitiveness issues in Congress at the end of last year, the inclusion by President Bush of an “American Competitiveness Initiative” in his State of the Union speech at the end of January clearly catalyzed the action on innovation and competitiveness issues this year. The President’s plan included a number of different provisions addressing different portions of the innovation/competitiveness chain:

  • First, double, over 10 years, the Federal support for fundamental research in the physical sciences and engineering at the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science;
  • Second, make permanent the R&D Tax Credit;
  • Third, encourage more children to take more math and science, and encourage more math and science professionals to teach;
  • Fourth, provide more worker training options;
  • and, Fifth, increase our ability to compete for and retain the best and the brightest talent in the world.

Congress, too, had it’s own ideas — many gleaned from influential reports like the National Academies’ Rising Above the Gathering Storm and the Council on Competitiveness’ Innovate America reports — and reflected them in a number of pieces of legislation introduced throughout the year. It was enough to make the science advocacy community somewhat giddy. After all, we’d been fighting for several years to convince the Administration and Congress that the federal investment in fundamental research, despite being an absolutely crucial part of the the chain of innovation that keeps America dominant in an increasingly competitive world, was inadequately supported within the Federal budget — a fact that put our future competitiveness at risk. But until this year, beyond a few sympathetic ears in Congress, that argument had gained no traction. Then, a change in attitude in the White House and some real leadership on both sides of the aisle in Congress (folks like Reps. Frank Wolf (R-VA), Sherry Boehlert (R-NY), the House Democratic Leadership, Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Joe Lieberman (D-CT), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Pete Domenici (R-NM), John Ensign (R-NV), and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD)) and the tide turned dramatically. Soon the President was on the road making the case for increased funding for science and members were scrambling to claim some legislative ground by introducing a plethora of competitiveness bills.
So as we approach the end of this legislative session, where did all of this activity get us? How will the science community fare as a result of “competitiveness” and “innovation” becoming hot topics?
The short answer seems to be: we’ll probably do pretty well.
For those of us who have a great interest in seeing university research in the physical sciences (which, in DC parlance, includes mathematics, computer science, physics, chemistry, etc) receive more support, the clear number one priority was seeing the President’s number one priority — starting NSF, NIST and DOE Office of Science, on the path to doubling their budgets in 10 years — enacted in the FY 2007 appropriations bills. And despite some early mixed-signals from the House Republican leadership, both the full House and the Senate Appropriations Committee have approved appropriations bills that would provide those agencies with the full funding they requested under ACI.
[There is one potential hurdle ahead in the form of the appropriations “end-game.” It’s clear that Congress will not conclude work on the appropriations bills before the November election, which means they’ll need to pass a “continuing resolution” that would provide funding for the federal government past the Oct 1, 2006 beginning of the 2007 fiscal year. What is unclear is whether Congress will elect to return after the election in “lame duck” session and pass the appropriations bills as freestanding pieces of legislation (unlikely), as part of a giant omnibus appropriation with all bills rolled into one (pretty likely), or simply “punt” on the whole issue and extend the “continuing resolution” (CR) through Sept. 30, 2007.
That last option is the most problematic for the science community. A CR typically directs federal agencies to continue to spend in the new fiscal year, but only at the same rate as the previous fiscal year — with no new starts or programs. A similar CR this year would wipe out all the gains we’ve worked to achieve through the President’s ACI and the House and Senate appropriations committees and send us back to square one next year. While it’s unlikely Congress would take the CR option this year — a CR would wipe out any earmarks won by lawmakers as well, unless they were explicitly included — it’s not completely out of the question, and the uncertainty about which party will lead each chamber doesn’t make the prognosticating any easier. So CRA, along with the rest of the science community, will continue to take the message “omnibus, not CR!” to the congressional leadership throughout the end of this legislative session.]
Beyond funding increases for the agencies, however, things aren’t quite as clear. Several bills were introduced in Congress this year that attempt to “authorize” specific provisions of ACI, or the various recommendations of the Gathering Storm or Innovate America reports. The table below shows what some of those bills contain and what their current and likely future status is. In every case, it appears the bills will fall short of the actions required to enact them. The biggest hurdle, it appears, is the White House’s continuing insistence that the programs contained in the ACI don’t require additional authorizations (and so they’re reluctant to allow Congress to put its stamp on programs in authorizations), and the House Leadership’s continuing reluctance to pass “high-dollar” authorizations at a time when it’s trying to demonstrate fiscal restraint. (This despte the fact that the authorizations don’t actually obligate any funding — it’s just “bad optics.”)
With only a short time remaining in the 109th Congress’ legislative calendar — really, only the days the Members are willing to sit in “lame duck” session after the election — it becomes increasingly unlikely (though not impossible) that any of the congressional competitiveness bills will make it to the President’s desk. So, despite yesterday’s introduction by the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders of the National Competitiveness Investment Act (not yet online) — an omnibus-like complilation of a number of different Senate approaches into one 209-page bill — it’s not clear that any of the bill will get the necessary consideration in the House to move it towards passage.
It would be nice symbolism to see these Congressional authorizations passed overwhelmingly, but it’s not a particularly big loss that they likely won’t be. In fact, from our perspective, there’s a benefit in not having these particular bills get enacted. One key element of increasing the Nation’s innovative capacity is insuring that we have a diverse, well-educated workforce. And a key part of that is by increasing the participation of underrepresented groups in math and science — particularly in computer science. Though the various authorization bills listed below have a number of good things in them, none is particularly strong in promoting the participation of women or minorities in math and science. Having to begin the process of working through these bills with the next Congress beginning in January actually presents an opportunity for us to continue to make the case for increasing support for programs that aim to create a more diverse workforce, with the hope of seeing that reflected in whatever bill finally moves towards passage.
But, for now, the real key for those of us who represent those who do fundamental research in the physical sciences is to see the appropriations requested by the President enacted in full. And on that score, we should do quite well this session.

Status of Key Innovation/Competitiveness Bills
Bill Title Key Provisions Pass House? Pass Senate?
H.R. 5356 – Research For Competitiveness Act (previous coverage)

  • Early career grants programs at NSF, DOE and NIST;
  • Authorize NSF “prize” competitions;
  • Establish cross-disciplinary awards program for “bridging the gap” betwee life sciences and physical sciences;
  • Encourage NSF research on the process of innovation.

No No
H.R. 5358 – Science and Math Education For Competitiveness Act (previous coverage)

  • Authorizes a scholarship program for teachers in K-12 math and science;
  • Encourages school and university partnerships in math and science education through a specialized master’s degree program as well as a mentor program for AP teachers and their students;
  • Allows NSF to fund centers to improve undergraduate education.

No No
S. 2802 – American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (previous coverage)

  • Increase funding authorizations for NSF and NIST;
  • Create “Innovation Acceleration Grants” at federal agencies;
  • Creates a council to overss basic research efforts at NASA;
  • Directs NAS to study “forms of risk that create barriers to innovation.”

No No
S. 2197 – Protecting America’s Competitive Edge (PACE) Act — Energy (previous coverage)

  • Authorizes national labs staff to assist schools that specialize in science and math;
  • Establishes an “experiment-based” internship program, as well as a satellite summer programs at the national labs;
  • Renewed focus on nuclear science education with expansion grants, competitiveness grants and scholarships for students in that area;
  • Creates an Advanced Research Projects Authority (ARPA-E) at DOE, as well as a graduate fellowship program.

No No
S. 3936 – Protecting America’s Competitive Edge (PACE) Act — Energy Essentially a consolidation of the National Innovation Act and the PACE Energy and Education bills. No Likely Soon
Innovation and Competitiveness: How’d we do?