The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has released a draft of its reauthorization bill for the COMPETES legislation that has determined the budget authorization for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Office of Science at the Department of Energy since the Bush Administration (H/T ScienceInsider).
The Senate’s approach to the bill is consistent with the initial 2007 legislation and the reauthorization bill from 2010. However, the House took a different approach this time, opting to handle agency reauthorizations (and other provisions) in separate bills. And while that difference in approach can be reconciled in the legislative process without a lot of additional effort, the differences in content between the House and Senate might not.
Besides breaking up the legislation, the House bill focusing on the National Science Foundation outlined a much more active oversight role for Congress. Not only did the bill, acronymized as FIRST, set up funding levels for the individual research directorates, it added an additional level of review to the process of awarding research grants. It also dramatically reduced the funding for social and behavioral science research, which several Republicans have indicated does not appear connected to the national interest and therefore does not deserve federal funding.
With a limited amount of time remaining in the legislative calendar (thanks to it being an election year), and a shakeup in senior House leadership (soon-to-be former Majority Leader Eric Cantor was particularly interested in this legislation), the prospects for legislation becoming law are smaller than normal.
But there’s always the next Congress.There is a reasonable chance that the Senate, which currently has a Democratic majority, could switch to Republican control in the next Congress. It would be reasonable to expect that if the House took a similar approach to reauthorizing science funding in the next Congress that such legislation has a better chance of passing the Senate.
Would the President threaten to veto (or carry out such a threat) if a future FIRST-like bill come across his desk? Given how the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy spoke about the FIRST bill, there’s a good chance the Administration would recommend a veto. But I think it foolhardy to wait for such a circumstance to happen. Whether or not the motivations of House Republicans match their express intentions of making sure funded research is truly in the national interest, there are review mechanisms already in place for such concerns to be addressed. I would like to see research funding advocates do much more to highlight existing review practices on broader impacts and how they can address the concerns that the additional research oversight sought by House Republicans in their legislation.
As for the continued pressure on reducing or eliminating funding for social and behavioral research funding, I think additional attention on broader impacts review can help demonstrate the value of this research to doubting members of Congress.
Senate action on COMPETES reauthorization may have prevented new and inefficient oversight of research funding by Congress, but the topic will be revisited. If those who want increased research funding are going to succeed, I think they need to change their old tactics and strategy to reflect that the conversation with Congress has changed. While I’m not keen on adding the scientific judgment of members of Congress into the merit review process, they (and we, the public) deserve a justification for our research investments that goes beyond scientific merit. Research agencies (and their advocates) need to talk more effectively about those other impacts.