Senate Version of COMPETES Act Reauthorization Introduced

UPDATE: On June 29th the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation reported S. 3084, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, out favorably. There were a number of amendments but nothing of note to our community, besides the expected amendment (described in the original post below) including authorized funding levels for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

What is worth noting is that the bill was approved on a bipartisan basis with only one dissenting vote, Senator Deb Fischer (R-NE). Citing the fact that the authorization levels approved in the legislation are not off-set by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget, the Senator voted against the bill. This is likely a preview of what S. 3084 will encounter when/if it reaches the full Senate, even though the bill is not an appropriations bill (it only sets a target for the appropriators to aim for and has no binding budgetary power).

CRA endorsed the bill before it was passed by the committee.

Original Post (06/23/2016):This morning, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee released their long awaited reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act. The bill, called the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (S. 3084), would set federal science policy at the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST), and the Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP). As our long time readers will remember, the House Science Committee introduced and passed their own reauthorization of COMPETES in 2015, called the FIRST Act. The Senate bill is scheduled to be marked up next week, on June 29th. Let’s get into some of the details with the bill.

The first thing to notice is what’s not in the bill, namely authorization for funding levels for NSF and NIST. Quick note: this is an authorization bill, not an appropriations bill; the difference is an authorization bill sets a goal for how much money should go to programs, while an appropriations bill actually assigns the money. We have heard from members of the S&T policy community that an amendment will be filed tomorrow, which will authorize funding for the two agencies for two years. For Fiscal Year (FY) 2017, the bill authorizes $7.5 billion for NSF, which is the same level of funding included in the Senate’s FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations bill. For FY2018, the bill authorizes a four percent increase in funding for NSF. It’s worth pointing out that this is still tentative and could change. Lastly, it worth pointing out that there is also no directorate-by-directorate level funding for NSF in the bill, and we don’t anticipate there will be any offered at the markup. That is a big difference with the House’s FIRST Act and a big win for the NSF research community, particularly the Social and Behavioral scientists.

As for what’s actually in the bill, it contains a number of policy provisions. Of interest to our community are the following items:

– “Title 1 Section 101 – Reaffirmation of merit-based peer review” – this is a “Sense of Congress” reaffirming the importance of peer review. It is likely a counter to the House’s FIRST Act, which calls for more scrutiny of the peer review process at NSF. The language is quite strong and supportive of NSF; for example, “as evidenced by the Foundation’s contributions to scientific advancement, economic development, human health, and national security, its peer review and merit review processes have successfully identified and funded scientifically and societally relevant research and should be preserved.”

– “Title 1 Section 105 – Networking and information technology research and development (NITRD) update” – This is the Senate version of the NITRD reauthorization, which the House passed recently. This section is similar to the House bill in its call for more strategic planning by NCO and the participating agencies, and in identifying some new areas of focus for the program, including:

  • “provide for research on the interplay of computing and people, including social computing and human-robot interaction;”
  • “provide for research on cyber-physical systems and improving the methods available for the design, development, and operation of those systems that are characterized by high reliability, safety, and security;”
  • “provide for the understanding of the science, engineering, policy, and privacy protection related to networking and IT;” and,
  • “provide for the understanding of the human facets of cyber threats and secure cyber systems.”

– “Title II Section 201 – Interagency working group on research regulation” – This sections concerns reducing the administrative burden on researchers. The bill cites that, “researchers spend as much as 42 percent
16 of their time complying with Federal regulations,” and, as a Sense of Congress, directs the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to work with OSTP to establish an interagency working group to coordinate how to reduce the burden.

– “Title II Section 202 – Scientific and technical collaboration” – Asserts the importance of Federal scientists attending symposia and conferences. Directs OMB to work with OSTP and other science research agencies to “revise current policies and streamline [approval] processes.” Decision should be based on whether attendance at the workshop would meet the mission of the organization and whether there are sufficient funds available for that purpose.

– “Title III Section 311 – Computer Science Education Research” – Directs NSF to award grants to support CS education research. The language notes, “the Foundation is well positioned to make investments that will accelerate ongoing efforts to enable rigorous and engaging computer science throughout the Nation.”

– “Title VI Section 601 – Innovation corps.” – Sense of Congress that, “I-Corps is a useful tool in promoting the commercialization of federally-funded research by training researchers funded by the Foundation in entrepreneurship and commercialization.” The bill directs NSF to, “encourage the development and expansion of I-Corps and other training programs that focus on professional development, including education in entrepreneurship and commercialization.”

The bill contains a number of provisions on expanding the opportunities of STEM education, reducing administrative burdens on researchers, and improving the transferring of technology and research from federal labs to the marketplace. On the whole, the bill is very supportive in tone of the science agencies.

So, what happens next? As noted above, the bill is scheduled to be marked up next week by the full Senate Commerce Committee and is expected to pass with bipartisan support. After that, the bill heads to the full Senate and the path forward becomes less clear. There are only two more weeks of legislative work days before Congress breaks for their respective July Presidential Conventions and the August recess. When the legislature comes back into session in September, the expectation is very little work will get done before they gone on break for October to campaign for reelection. All that means is it is unlikely that the bill will get floor time on the Senate until November, at the earliest. That leaves the lame duck session after the November election; how that session unfolds will depend greatly on the outcome of the election. So check back, as we will be watching this legislation very carefully.

Senate Version of COMPETES Act Reauthorization Introduced