APS News

Congressional COMPETES Bill Starves Some Programs to Feed Others

On Wednesday, April 22, the House Science Committee put forward controversial legislation that would reprioritize federal spending on science and research.

April 23, 2015  |  Michael Lucibella

Science advocacy groups, including the APS, have roundly criticized the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015 (H.R. 1806) for politically targeted cuts to specific areas of research, as well as restrictive new regulations for the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy.

“We believe these provisions and others are detrimental to the health of our nation’s science and technology enterprise, and they outweigh the bill’s authorization increases for physics research,” said an open letter to the committee signed by American Physical Society president Samuel Aronson.

In addition, the American Institute of Physics, the American Geophysical Union, the American Association of Universities, and the Task Force on American Innovation representing more than forty companies, industry groups, scientific societies and advocacy groups have all issued letters criticizing the legislation.

The bill adds no new money to the research budgets of the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, but would instead redirect funding within the departments. The bill would slash by more than 50 percent the budgets of the NSF’s social and behavioral sciences directorate, ARPA-E, and the DoE’s renewables and efficiency research from the president’s request. NIST, the NSF’s geoscience division, and the DOE’s biological and environmental budgets would be cut by 17, 12 and 10 percent respectively.

On the flip side, that money would be redirected into other sections. The bill would boost DOE nuclear fusion research by 16 percent over the president’s request, NSF biology programs by 12 percent, and NSF math and physical sciences by 10 percent.

Regulations would impose additional operations requirements on the NSF for its large-scale facilities management and prohibit the Department of Energy sponsored research to be used to guide the creation of federal regulation.

“It’s a nuisance bill at the very best and at the very worst it’s a highly politically motivated document,” said Michael Lubell, the director of public affairs at APS.

According to Lubell, the programs targeted for cuts seem to be more about making a political statement against climate change research than an effort to pass a bill. The current legislation is deeply divisive and disruptive, he notes, seemingly more so than if the Republicans had wanted to pass a compromise bill with an easier chance of clearing Senate.

“They could have made their mark and gotten the president to sign something even if he didn’t agree with all of it,” Lubell said.

He added that, as it stands now, the likelihood of the bill becoming law was small. “There are so many things in it that the president will find completely odious, he’s not going to sign it even if the Senate passes it, which I doubt,” Lubell said. “This is dead in the water.”

Even in the Republican controlled Senate, the provisions contained in the bill are too controversial to this more moderate legislative body. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is said to be drafting his own Senate version of the bill, but it is not clear what the provisions will be and it is not expected to garner meaningful support in the House.

At the markup hearing on Wednesday Democrats introduced a slew of defeated amendments designed to undercut many of the bill’s harsher provisions. Similarly, last month Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced the American Innovation Bill, which would increase nearly all federal research budgets by 5 percent over inflation. However it is unlikely to garner the Republican support to advance in the Senate, much less the House.

The original COMPETES act that was passed in 2007 called for the doubling of the NSF’s budget by 2011. This this did not happen and the bill was renewed in 2010 but with later target dates that were likewise not met.