By Connor Dacey, GSA Science Policy Fellow

Calcifying corals grow under low pH conditions
Image Credit: Elizabeth D. Crook/National Science Foundation

On May 18th, The House of Representatives passed a number of bills focused on science topics.  These included (1) the Supporting Early-Career Researchers Act (H.R. 144), (2) the STEM Opportunities Act (H.R. 204), (3) the MSI STEM Achievement Act (H.R. 2027), (4) the Combatting Sexual Harassment in Science Act (H.R. 2695), (5) the Rural STEM Education Research Act (H.R. 210) and (6) the COAST Research Act of 2021 (H.R. 1447). 

The first four bills were sponsored by Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson [D-TX-30], with Representative Frank Lucas [R-OK-03] and Representative Suzanne Bonamici [D-OR-01] sponsoring the remaining two, respectively.  All the bills had previously passed the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

The Supporting Early-Career Researchers Act directs the Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to establish a 2-year program that awards grants to early-career researchers at a college or university of their choosing in response to the many challenges faced by these scientists during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The bill states that these early-career researchers will be recruited from all regions of the country, especially from historically underrepresented populations in STEM.  Within three months after the program concludes, a report must also be made to Congress that provides demographic data on the fellowship awardees and feedback regarding the effectiveness of the program on mitigating the loss of research talent due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The STEM Opportunities Act focuses on expanding opportunities for underrepresented minority groups in STEM careers and fields.  It directs the NSF to establish grant programs that aim to recruit, retain, and advance the careers of minority or marginalized groups in STEM.  Some of these grant programs must also support minority students at colleges and universities, especially those studying computer science.  NSF will also collect survey data on the demographics of STEM faculty members in an effort to better understand the social dynamics at institutes of higher education.  Finally, the bill requires that each Federal science agency implement specific recommendations from the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s (OSTP) Reducing the Impact of Bias in the STEM Workforce report in an effort to reduce implicit bias across all agencies.  

The Minority Serving Institutions (MSI) STEM Achievement Act aims to increase STEM education at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (BHCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and MSIs.  It requires the NSF to award grants to build research capacity at these locations in an overall effort to increase the size and diversity of the STEM workforce.  Within three years after its date of enactment, the bill requires the development of a report to Congress that lists the competitive funding programs and initiatives carried out by federal science agencies.  It instructs federal science agencies to assign liaisons to HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs in an effort to improve direct communication, coordinate programs, activities, and initiatives, hold workshops on how to write competitive research grants, and foster collaboration and expand professional networks of students and faculty.  Finally, the bill requires each federal science agency to produce a report within one year of enactment that depicts their strategic plans for improving the capacity of HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs.

The Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act addresses the issue of sexual and gender harassment in the STEM field.  This bill would support research that aims to reduce instances of sexual harassment and prevent it from occurring in the future. It specifically directs the NSF to award research grants to examine these topics, and to also understand the ramifications of sexual harassment in the STEM industry.  To do so, the bill states that NSF will form a working group to develop surveys and questions relating to the topic of sexual and gender harassment, and send out these questions nationally to gauge the prevalence of harassment in colleges and universities. NSF will also partner with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to review and update its policies as it relates to sexual and gender harassment, and study how it impacts the career advancement of those in STEM. It requires the OSTP to set standards and guidelines for how to handle instances of sexual or gender harassment, and the National Science and Technology Council to establish a working group to help coordinate Federal science agencies’ efforts to reduce harassment in the workplace. A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate by Senators Richard Blumenthal [D-CT] and Tina Smith [D-MN] as the two chambers work to make this bill into law.

The Rural STEM Education Research Act focuses on expanding access to STEM research and education in rural locations across America.  More specifically, the bill directs NSF to support STEM education in rural schools and the National Academies of Science to make recommendations for actions at all levels to improve STEM education in these underserved locations.  Another big focus of this bill is to expand access to broadband internet across the entire U.S.  The bill establishes (1) a program that awards prizes of up to $5 million to those that develop creative technologies to expand broadband internet access to underserved rural communities, and (2) a working group to research and study how the U.S. can better improve broadband internet.  The bill stipulates that within three years of the bill becoming law a study of rural populations to assess STEM education programs and their effectiveness must be completed.  Senators Roger Wicker [R-MS], Jacky Rosen [D-NV], John Cornyn [R-TX], and Maggie Hassan [D-NV] also reintroduced a bipartisan companion bill named the Rural STEM Education Act in the Senate. The Senate’s bill is similar to the one introduced in the House, focusing primarily on expanding broadband internet access and expanding STEM education in rural areas.

The Coastal and Ocean Acidification Stressors and Threats (COAST) Research Act of 2021 amends the Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act of 2009 and reauthorizes it for up to $50 million annually by fiscal year 2026.  It supports ocean acidification programs and grants at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as well as at the NSF.  Additionally, it expands research efforts at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to study the effects of coastal acidification.

Each of these pieces of legislation now move to the Senate to be considered. GSA will continue to track and follow the progression of these bills as Congress works to make them law.