Ensuring America's Scientific Future

By U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock, Chairwoman, Research & Technology Subcommittee
October 2015

America’s founders understood the importance of science in building a great nation, giving Congress the power “to promote the Progress of Science” in the Constitution. And indeed, a hallmark of our country’s leadership in the world has been the wealth of our ideas and innovation. The United States is the world’s largest R&D investor, spending $465 billion in 2014 and generating $860 billion for our nation’s economy while supporting over 8 million jobs. But there are warning signs that we cannot take that leadership for granted. Global competition in science and technology rises as other countries gain on the United States in research investment and surpass us in STEM education indicators.

In January, I had the honor to be named the chairwoman of the Research and Technology Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. In this role, I continue the work I started as chairwoman of the Science and Technology Committee in the Virginia House of Delegates, promoting innovation and 21st century jobs. My district in Northern Virginia is home to many leading technology companies and innovative entrepreneurs who are finding ways to revolutionize our national security, healthcare, economy, and education systems.

One of the great challenges my colleagues and I face in Congress is how to sustain federal resources for basic research support while ensuring fiscal responsibility in this difficult budget climate. Until we replace the current budget sequester with smarter cuts and reforms that help us balance the budget and grow the economy, resources for research and development threatens to remain stagnant. I am dedicated to fixing these larger budget problems. However, I also believe in the adage that every problem presents an opportunity — in this case, limited dollars mean the opportunity to challenge the status quo and find creative solutions to continue growing and supporting U.S. scientific enterprise.

One solution is enabling scientists to spend more time on research and less time on unnecessary paperwork. I was dismayed to learn that studies show researchers spend 42 percent of their time meeting administrative requirements. That is why I sponsored H.R. 1119, the Research and Development Efficiency Act, to help government harmonize, streamline, and eliminate duplicative federal regulations and reporting requirements. The House of Representatives passed this bill in May, and I hope the Senate will act on it soon.

One of the great strengths of the United States science community is its creativity, and we must continue to foster innovative new funding mechanisms, public-private partnerships, and methods for generating new ideas and investments. One example is encouraging more science prize competitions. Organizations like XPrize are taking on some of the world’s greatest problems and launching competitions to spur innovation and spark the imagination, allowing innovators to emerge based on merit, which often produces revolutionary, outside-the-box ideas. The Head Health Challenge — a recent joint effort by the National Football League, Under Armour, General Electric, and the National Institute for Standards and Technology to produce “viable materials that will result in increased safety and protection for athletes, the warfighter, and civilians” — is a great example of competition that could yield solutions that would impact a variety of professionals, from athletes to soldiers. I have supported legislation that would eliminate some of the barriers to these types of federal-private endeavors.

I recognize that these types of funding mechanisms are not a substitute for sustained investment in basic research.  The federal government plays an important role in providing resources for fundamental research that spurs private sector innovation. We must set budget priorities to provide targeted investments in science while preserving the merit review process that has led to some of the world’s greatest scientific discoveries. The House of Representatives recently passed H.R. 1806, the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015, to reauthorize civilian science research programs. The bill prioritized basic and fundamental research in the areas of biology, engineering, computer science, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and fundamental energy science — providing additional resources that could yield more than 3,600 new innovative research projects each year. These are the areas of science that can help the United States win the global competition for the next scientific breakthrough in crucial areas like super-computing, nanotechnology and bioengineering. These are also the areas where countries like China, estimated to pass the United States in R&D spending by 2020, are focusing their investments. Setting priorities is difficult and disrupts the status quo, but I believe it is necessary to launch the United States on a path to remain the world’s leader in innovation.

Finally, I believe there are two great threats to America’s global competitiveness. Our education system and our tax code are two areas where we need to shake up the status quo so the United States can move into the 21st Century. The U.S. lags behind many other nations when it comes to STEM education, ranking 21st in science and 26th in math. The federal government spends over $3 billion on 226 STEM education programs run by a dozen agencies. The government must do a better job of coordinating those programs and disseminating information and statistics to local schools as to what works and what does not work to capture the minds of young people in STEM fields and prepare them for 21st century jobs.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Monroe Technology Center in Leesburg, Virginia — a STEM magnet school in my district — where I watched a group of students reacting to contain as well as prevent cybersecurity breaches. These lessons captured students’ imaginations while also practically training them for a growing job market in cybersecurity. I want all students across the country to have access to those types of educational opportunities and to incentivize innovative science and technology-based education.

The current tax code must be modernized. The United States must address its confusing and overly burdensome tax code in order to remain competitive. At roughly 17,000 pages, the U.S. code makes America less appealing to businesses in the global marketplace. The average corporate tax rate for the European Union is 22.74% — a decrease of 2.26% in the past ten years. While Europe is responding to global competitiveness by gradually lowering their corporate rates, the United States — which has the highest statutory corporate tax in the free world at 39.1%, has not. We need to reform and lower our tax rates to incentivize 21st century jobs and bring science, tech, and manufacturing businesses back to the United States.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1821, “[I have] a conviction that science is important to the preservation of our republican government, and that it is also essential to its protection against foreign power.” I share that conviction and believe that nearly 200 years later, it is even truer as we forge the 21st Century and all of its challenges. America must not grow complacent about its scientific leadership in the world. I look forward to continuing my work with the science community in an effort to find policy solutions that ensure our nation’s future competitiveness.

Barbara Comstock was elected in November of 2014, to represent Virginia’s 10th Congressional District (Loudoun County, Clarke County, Frederick County, and parts of Fairfax County and Prince William County as well as the Cities of Winchester, Manassas Park, and Manassas City). She currently serves on the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, the Science, Space and Technology Committee, where she serves as Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Research and Technology, and the House Administration Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Congresswoman Comstock served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 2010 to 2015 and served as Chairwoman of the Science and Technology Committee. She also served on the Commerce and Labor Committee, and Transportation Committee. Barbara consistently received an “A” rating from the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and received their 2012 “Free Enterprise” award and 2014 “Competitiveness” award.

Congresswoman Comstock is a 30+ year resident of McLean, Virginia. She and her husband, Chip, a retired Fairfax County Schools Assistant Principal who continues to teach, have raised their three children in McLean. The Comstocks have been active in community sports, school, neighborhood, political and church activities for over 30 years.Barbara graduated from Georgetown University Law Center and Middlebury College with a B.A. in Political Science.

Rep. Barabara Comstock
Photo: Courtesy of the office of U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock

U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock