Washington, D.C. – The federal government must robustly fund academia and engage with private industry to boost the nation’s economic competitiveness in science and technology, experts told policymakers during a congressional hearing.

The hearing was an opportunity for members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation to fine-tune policies for the long-awaited reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act, which authorizes federal funding for science and technology research. The hearing took place on 11 May.

Although it is the first Senate hearing on COMPETES this session, Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Gary Peters (D-MI), leaders of the Commerce Committee’s “Innovation and Competitiveness Working Group,” have been holding a series of roundtable meetings with stakeholders. The working group is charged with preparing legislation for the COMPETES Act.

Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) highlighted the importance of funding geoscience research during the hearing, linking geoscience research to boosting national security, preparing for natural disasters, supplying energy, and maintaining healthy oceans, freshwater reservoirs, and critical mineral resources.

“Simply put — science and technology are critical to American competitiveness,” Peters, also the Ranking Member of the committee, said in his opening statement during the hearing. “These are big challenges that require everyone — democrats and republicans, the federal government and state and local governments, industry and academia – to work together on solutions,” he said.

COMPETES reauthorization

The first rendition of the America COMPETES Act (COMPETES is an acronym for: “Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science”) was enacted into law in 2007 under then-President George W. Bush. It was reauthorized in 2010 by President Barack Obama.

The House passed a decidedly less bipartisan version of the COMPETES Act reauthorization almost exactly one year ago that stifled funding for geoscience, especially climate science, and drew the chagrin of many science societies. The societies sent letters to both the House and Senate, urging strong federal support for geoscience.

“The prospect of a new COMPETES Act comes at a time of extraordinary possibilities for science,” Kelvin Droegemeier, the most recent past Vice Chair of the National Science Board and current Vice President for Research and the University of Oklahoma, said in his testimony. The reauthorization of COMPETES needs to work toward ensuring that research and development careers are attractive to the next generation of scientists and engineers, he said.

It is important that COMPETES not only fund science and engineering research; legislation needs to set up a framework to ensure that funding can be commercialized to grow the U.S. economy, Robert Atkinson, President of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said in his testimony. “Reauthorization of Competes is crucial to the well-functioning of the U.S. innovation system,” he said.

Funding for basic science

The witnesses emphasized the importance of sustained and strong funding for basic research throughout the hearing. “The early phase of innovation is basic or fundamental research, a domain dominated by academic institutions and enabled by the resources and policies created primarily by the Federal Government,” David Munson, Dean of Engineering at the University of Michigan, said in his testimony.

The federal government has unique value in funding basic research that is generally overlooked by the private industry, Droegemeier said. Major scientific discoveries like LIGO (gravitational waves) and CRISPRs (human genome) were possible because of sustained investment in basic research, Droegemeier continued. Basic research is frequently the incubator for many discoveries – Apple innovated basic research that eventually led to the iPhone, Droegemeier said.

The technology behind LIGO can help develop new technologies in related fields and lead to unexpected inventions, like improved materials for structural components of aircrafts, Jeannette Wing, Corporate Vice President for Research at Microsoft, said in her testimony. “In fact, most new technologies are traceable to research projects where the scientists could not foresee the future applications and impact of their work,” she said.

A Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) installation specialist checks the alignment of a test beam on the optical table of a transmission monitor system at the far end of one of LIGO’s 4 kilometer detector arms. Credit: NSF

Microsoft is one of the few companies that funds basic research, Wing said. Just as Microsoft funds basic research to ensure the success of its company, the U.S. funds basic research to ensure the success of the country, she said.

Federal funding for basic research produces talent that industries rely on – each sector feeds of the other, Wing said during the hearing.

STEM pipeline

“In order to continue to be the innovation leader that we are today, it is vital that our STEM population be sufficiently large and especially well educated,” Munson said. It is important to engage currently underrepresented populations so that they have the opportunity to pursue STEM careers and become part of a diverse workforce, he said.

One way to engage more students in STEM is to open more STEM-focused high schools, Atkinson said. “There are currently about 100 of these high schools in America, like Thomas Jefferson in Northern Virginia or Montgomery Blair in Montgomery County,” he said. These schools are effective in helping minorities and students from socio-economic disadvantaged areas gain a high-quality STEM education, Atkinson said.

STEM education is also vital in higher education, Wing said. “Multiyear appropriations should be prioritized for agencies that primarily support research and graduate STEM education to strengthen the future research workforce,” she said. Currently there are about 150,000 open positions (and growing) in computer science and approximately 50,000 students who are computer science majors that graduate per year, Wing said.

Furthermore, skills and knowledge gleaned from STEM education isn’t limited to STEM fields anymore. “The days in which STEM skills were necessary only for occupations traditionally classified as “science and engineering” (S&E) are over,” Droegemeier said. “Far from being a monolithic, homogenous group, the STEM workforce is comprised of workers with different educational qualifications who are employed in a wide range of fields and careers,” he continued.

Legislation for science

Effective science policies that support the STEM workforce and drive economic growth need to come from the science community, Droegemeier said. “Don’t pick winners,” he said during the hearing. “Make science bipartisan again,” Droegemeier said.

There are no sure bets in predicting the next breakthrough in science, Senator Gardner said, but legislators can reduce the administrative burden associated with applying for federal funding while maintaining transparency and accountability.

Droegemeier agreed that it’s important to look at how policies are implemented to find out whether the system is working and identify any agencies that could work together on similar projects. When certain fields or technologies are projected to increase, they should receive higher funding, Atkinson said. It’s important to consider which technology will have a major economic impact, he said.

The Innovation and Competitiveness Working Group is developing bipartisan legislation from input received from the roundtables and stakeholder feedback, similar bills introduced by members of the Commerce Committee and others, and policy recommendations made by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, and the National Academy of Sciences, among others,” Senator John Thune (R-SD), Chairman of the Commerce Committee, said.  “We are hopeful the bill will be ready in the coming days”

The sun and Earth warp space and time, or spacetime, which is represented by a green grid. Scientists observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory detectors. Credit: NSF

By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow