First look at Senate COMPETES bill; S.1398 is good for research but will it move?

[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!