America COMPETES 2014: A Much Needed Reauthorization

August 27, 2014  |  Julia Gonski (Guest Blogger)

The Senate recently released a draft bill to increase funding for a variety of national scientific organizations, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and NASA, among others. For many researchers, students and educators across the country, this proposal is a breath of fresh air in a field that has been struggling with budgets cuts for years.

Unfortunately, the House of Representatives has not been so understanding.

The legislation in question, known as the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2014, was released by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on July 18. In May, the House was considering a bill tackling similar issues, but in a very dissimilar way.

To start, the numbers alone show a disparate perspective. The Senate bill proposes support for the NSF until 2019, culminating in an annual budget of $9.9 billion, whereas the House only offers a budget of $7.27 billion until 2015. Furthermore, the House mandates an additional step in the pre-existing peer review process for NSF grants, requiring NSF officials to certify that the funding is being used in an area of science which has “a substantial current or potential impact… on the State.” The House bill also includes language on misrepresentation of research results, details banning scientists from receiving support, and places ridiculous restrictions on how to cite your work when applying for a federal grant.

In short, the Senate bill treats science and scientists with vision, whereas the House bill treats them as untrustworthy individuals who need government oversight.

As a global power in the twenty-first century, we must recognize that scientific innovation will have substantial impact on the nation.   We now live in a world where words such as ‘quantum’ and ‘nuclear’ can be heard on national news networks, and where several of the most polarizing political issues in the past few years (think climate change, stem cell research, and weapons development) have been scientific in nature. Can we continue down a path that cripples scientists rather than empowers them to as the United States increasingly competes on the international stage?

Since its formal inception in 1950, the NSF has supported national defense; created the first national observatories in the age of Sputnik; and fostered good will in several international collaborations. In more recent decades, the NSF has been a foundation of research in materials and technology, helping to launch the vast American tech industry and cultivate economic benefit. It is the only national organization designed to encompass all fields of science, and it has facilitated great strides in each one.

In order to maintain this momentum, America must continue to provide opportunities in science to its younger generations. The statistics are ubiquitous and disheartening. According to a 2012 study done by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, American students consistently rank below average in mathematics performance, ranking 27th out of 34 countries. Furthermore, only 50 percent of students report that they are interested in studying math, indicating a lack of public awareness and interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. If science is dominating the global dynamic, we need to put more effort into keeping up.

NSF has a variety of programs designed to tackle this issue, providing assistance to students and educators in all levels of schooling, while organizations like NASA frequently conduct outreach events designed to generate public enthusiasm. While both the Senate and the House encourage the perpetuation of such programs, only the Senate bill authorizes the NSF and the Department of Education to fund states wishing to create secondary schools devoted specifically to STEM education.

It is likely that this disagreement within Congress won’t be resolved before the November election, but it is a resolution that will have a significant impact on the future of science in America for years to come. If the nation wants to sustain economic and industrial achievement, while staying competitive in the global marketplace, the importance of science funding cannot be overlooked.

Policy news and viewpoints for the physics community. The analysis and opinions are those of the APS Office of Public Affairs and do not necessarily represent the entire Society.