Policymakers approved a new version of a beleaguered science policy bill aimed at increasing the nation’s competitiveness in science and technology.

The American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (S. 3084) authorizes an increase in research funding and lessens administrative burdens on researchers, among other provisions. The bill was approved by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on 29 June 2016 and now heads to the Senate for approval.

The new Senate bill varies significantly from the House’s version of the bill – the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015 (H.R. 1806) – which passed the House last May despite all Democrats and 23 Republicans voting against it. The bill was highly unpopular in the scientific community for its specified directorate-level funding at the National Science Foundation. The bill called for increased funding in biology, computing, engineering, math, and physical sciences, but stipulated for decreased funding in geosciences and social and behavioral sciences.

The Senate bill abandons the House bill’s penchant for specificity and instead authorizes general funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for two years. For 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, and Science Appropriations bill. For FY 2018, the bill authorizes a four percent increase in funding for NSF.

Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Gary Peters (D-MI) spearheaded the new bill and led the Commerce Committee’s “Innovation and Competitiveness Working Group,” which held a series of roundtable meetings with stakeholders to discuss priorities for the bill. Following the meetings, the committee held a hearing in May to explore various avenues to boost the nation’s economic competitiveness in science and technology.

“The American Innovation and Competitiveness Act is essential to ensuring our science and research communities and the next generation of leaders have the resources necessary to keep America competitive,” Senator Gardner, the bill’s sponsor,  said in a statement.

Senator Peters, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said, “I am proud to have worked with Senator Gardner, Chairman [John] Thune (R-SD) and Ranking Member [Bill] Nelson (D-FL) to craft this bipartisan legislation that will help ensure America remains at the forefront of an increasingly high-tech global marketplace.”  The scientific community has responded positively to the bill. The Task Force on American Innovation and Coalition for National Science Funding, two organizations to which GSA belongs, sent letters supporting many provisions in the bill.

vacuum scanning thermal microscope NSF
A view inside the ultra-high vacuum scanning thermal microscope that was used to measure temperature fluxes at the nanoscale. Credit: NSF; Pramod Reddy, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Highlights in the bill

The committee’s working group took many stakeholders’ considerations into account. To support and maximize basic research, the bill reaffirms the NSF’s merit-based review process for determining grants, includes reforms to increase transparency and accountability during NSF’s grant-making process, and requires NSF to implement better oversight of large research facility constructions. The bill also calls on the White House Office of Management and Budget to revise existing policies to make it easier for federal scientists to attend scientific conferences.

The bill establishes an Office of Management and Budget and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy-led interagency working group to reduce regulatory and administrative burdens on researchers.

The bill also expands NSF grant programs to increase participation and expand science and technology opportunities for women and other underrepresented groups, including EPSCoR (currently known as the “Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research” and proposed in the bill to be known as the “Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research”), which is an NSF program that assists States and jurisdictions historically under-served by federal research and development funding. To cast an even wider net over the population, the bill expands crowdsourcing research input and citizen science participation by organizations and individuals.

To promote commercialization, the bill authorizes and expands NSF’s Innovation Corps program, which trains and mentors federally funded researchers on how they can commercialize their findings. “Recommitting the US to investments in basic research and development is important for growing the economy and critical to keeping the US as the world’s leader in this space,” Gardner said during the bill’s markup on 29 June.

By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow