America COMPETES Act Reauthorization Raises Concerns for Researchers
America COMPETES Act Reauthorization Raises Concerns for Researchers

November 2013

Congressional committees with jurisdiction over science in the House of Representatives and Senate have started their consideration of the reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act. The law, last reauthorized in 2010, funds STEM education and research programs at several federal scientific agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Republicans and Democrats on the House Science Committee released draft discussion bills earlier this month. The Republican bill, the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act, includes a sense of Congress statement that the social and behavioral sciences are important as part of all scientific disciplines. However, the bill also lists criteria for research grants to meet and requires that the NSF Director make an affirmative determination and certification before funding can be awarded.

The language in the bill pertaining to peer review at NSF was the major focus of a House Research and Technology Subcommittee hearing on the FIRST Act on November 13. Witnesses raised concerns about the burdens of tasking one person with signing off on all NSF grants, the effects that the NSF director’s approval would have on the appeals process, and the implications of a top-down system for research.

Two Republicans on the subcommittee, chair Larry Bucshon (R-IN) and David Schweikert (R-AZ), advocated for changes to the peer review system. Ranking member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) sought clarification on how to define the “national interest” criterion that would be included in the proposed NSF director’s determination and expressed concerns that it would be either too narrow or too broad.

The draft bill also includes stipulations with the potential to erode support for research in the social and behavioral sciences, and it places additional burdens both on prospective grantees and on the agency:

  •  NSF directorates other than the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate can fund social and behavioral science research if the research is determined to be of higher priority than other research within the directorate.
  • NSF would be required to establish procedures to ensure that any grant awarded is not duplicative of other federally funded research, that PIs include a list of all of their federal research awards and any awards for which they have proposals pending, and that PIs who have received more than five years of NSF funding receive further funding only if they will be contributing “substantial original research.

The America COMPETES bill from the House Science Committee Democrats includes a strong sense of Congress statement in support of the social and behavioral sciences and of NSF’s merit review process. Democrats are proposing the establishment of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education (ARPA-ED) as part of the Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation program, and a Grand Challenges in Education Research program at NSF. The bill will also request that the National Research Council and NSF collaborate on a report on “STEAM”—adding the arts as part of STEM education.

One bipartisan area of both bills is the pushback against the Obama administration’s plan to consolidate STEM education programs in the FY2014 budget without an opportunity for significant stakeholder input.  Both bills establish a STEM Advisory Panel to develop recommendations for federal STEM education programs that would require stakeholder input for any future reorganization.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing on the law on November 6. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who shepherded the original America COMPETES Act, served as a witness as part of this hearing and expressed his support for the reauthorization. In addition, he called for the committee to encourage the respective appropriations committee to “finish the job” to double the budgets of the major federal scientific research agencies, as was intended in the original iteration of the law passed in 2007.

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