America COMPETES 2014: A Much Needed Reauthorization

Guest Blogger: Julia Gonski

rsz_jgonskiThe 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.


Just before leaving town for the August recess, Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John Rockefeller (D-WV) introduced S. 2757, a bill to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act. Rockefeller, along with Committee colleagues Richard Durbin (D-IL), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Christopher Coons (D-DE) and Edward Markey (D-MA) supported the bill.

In contrast to previous reauthorizations, this bill was introduced without any Republican co-sponsors. Rockefeller, who is slated to retire at the end of this year, has stated his intent to get COMPETES reauthorized before his departure. However, given the number of high-priority bills that await consideration on the Senate floor, including FY15 appropriations bills, the fact that Congress will only be in session for 12 legislative days before adjourning for the Nov. 4 mid-term elections, and that a lame duck session after the elections has not been determined yet, it is unlikely that S. 2757 will be addressed by the end of the session.

Even if the bill were to be considered before the end of the session, S. 2757 differs considerably, and in some cases dramatically, from the House Science Committee’s reauthorization bill, which means reconciling the two is also unlikely.

S. 2757 authorizes spending for NIST and NSF for fiscal years 2015 through 2019: For NIST, the bill’s FY 2015 authorization of $912.7 million is higher than the Administration’s request of $900.0 million. The authorization levels would increase by approximately 6.7 percent in subsequent years under the bill. NIST’s current budget is $850.0 million, which is an increase of 10.9 percent from the previous year.

The bill also authorizes $7,649.3 million for the NSF for FY 2015; by contrast, the Administration’s request was $7,255.0 million. NSF’s authorizations would also increase approximately 6.7 percent in subsequent years. NSF’s current budget is $7,171.9 million, which is up 4.3 percent from the previous year.

In addition to the authorizations, the bill also addresses the development of a science and technology workforce in STEM education provisions for the Office of Science and Technology Policy, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NSF.

Importantly, the Senate bill addresses head-on a number of policy matters that have been under scrutiny by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee majority, including the importance of social, behavioral and economic sciences, federal scientific advisory bodies in determining the R&D priorities of federal agencies, and the NSF merit review process. With regard to NSF merit review, the Senate bill states that “as evidenced by the Foundation’s contributions to scientific advancement, economic development, human health, and national security, its peer review and merit review processes have successfully identified and funded scientifically and societally-relevant research and must be preserved.” The bill also emphasizes the importance of participation in scientific and technical conferences,

S. 2757 also addresses the recommendations of a recently released National Science Board Task Force report on administrative burdens in federally sponsored research. Chaired by former APS President Artie Bienenstock, the task force recommended a number of measures to ease the administrative burdens of applying for NSF grants. Specifically, the bill proposes that the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy convene a subcommittee on research productivity under the Committee on Science of the National Science and Technology Council, consistent with the intent to increase the productivity of federally sponsored research efforts. The subcommittee is directed to “develop and propose for adoption by the Federal science agencies, recommendations for reducing the costs and administrative burdens associated with competing for, completing, and reporting on Federal research grants.”

Energy critical elements and, well, gravel

neodymium“Critical doesn’t simply mean important,” stated Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ-12th) in his opening remarks during the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources’ July 23 hearing titled “American Metals and Mineral Security: An examination of the domestic critical minerals supply and demand chain.”

So what does “critical” mean when discussing minerals legislation on Capitol Hill? Put simply, it depends on whom you ask. And its definition is impacting the fate of legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

H.R. 1022 introduced by Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA-15th) uses the term “energy critical element,” or ECE, coined by the American Physical Society (APS) and the Materials Research Society (MRS) in their 2011 joint report: “Energy Critical Elements: Securing Materials for Emerging Technologies.” ECEs are defined in the APS-MRS report and H.R. 1022 as elements that are essential to developing next-generation energy technologies and have a high risk of supply disruption; a shortage of ECEs could significantly hinder the large-scale deployment of otherwise game-changing energy technologies.

Swalwell’s bill aims to bolster the domestic supply of ECEs using a multi-pronged approach. The bill authorizes a research and development program focused on exploration, reuse, and recycling of ECEs and establishes an effort to collect, catalogue and disseminate information on ECEs across the supply chain.

Unfortunately, the definition of critical in Swalwell’s legislation – which only encompasses a small number of elements – appears to be too narrow for the more than 140 House Republicans who voted against the bill when it came to the floor July 22.

If H.R. 761 (Amodei, R-NV-2nd) is any indication, the House majority party prefers a much broader definition of critical. H.R. 761 passed the House in September 2013 with “strategic and critical minerals” broadly defined to include any minerals that are necessary for national defense, national security, the Nation’s energy infrastructure and the Nation’s economic security or to support domestic manufacturing, agriculture, housing, etc.

The contrast between the definitions is stark, and Rep. Holt shared his thoughts on the broad meaning of “critical minerals” in H.R. 761 during the July 23 hearing. Holt opined, “…It’s a meaningless definition. It ignores the other part of what makes a mineral truly critical. As the National Academy of Sciences has pointed out, a mineral is critical when it performs an essential function for which there is no substitute, and when there is a high probability of its supply being restricted…”

Holt continued, “Just to say a mineral is critical because it is important makes it impossible to tell the difference between neodymium and gravel. Neodymium is a rare-earth metal essential for wind turbines and hybrid vehicles, and we are hugely-dependent on China for that mineral as it stands now. Gravel is, well, gravel.”

With Swalwell’s bill failing to pass the House and H.R. 761 stalled in the Democrat-controlled Senate, there is no clear path forward for legislation impacting the vast majority of critical minerals, regardless of how they are defined.

That said, one energy critical element, helium, continues to be an interest of many people. While the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 extends the lifetime of the Federal Helium Reserve until potentially 2021, many academic users currently struggle to procure reliable and affordable liquid helium, and there is no program planned for federal users once the reserve shuts down. In an effort to help current academic users, APS is partnering with the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) to create a pilot program aimed at improving liquid helium purchasing for academics. And Congress may already be looking to the future; Reps. Doug Lamborn (R-CO-5th) and Doc Hastings (R-WA-4th) recently introduced a discussion draft titled “American Helium Security Act of 2014” that, in addition to easing the permitting process, would also establish a royalty in-kind helium program to help mitigate the closing of the Federal Helium Reserve.

The APS Office of Public Affairs (OPA) will continue to advocate for the policy recommendations put forth in the APS-MRS report on energy critical elements, which are centered on information, research and recycling. Additionally, OPA is administering the liquid helium purchasing pilot program with DLA and will continue working with Congress and the Administration on the issue.

Readers interested in learning more about the liquid helium purchasing program should contact Mark Elsesser ( for more information.

House Passes Four Science Bills

The House of Representatives passed four bills on July 14 that originated in the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Given that all four bills have bipartisan co-sponsorship, the action could temporarily quell the atmosphere of divisiveness that has recently characterized the committee’s work. The bills address administrative burdens for scientific investigators, STEM education, the impact of windstorms and international science and technology cooperation.

The first bill, titled Research and Development Efficiency Act (H.R. 5056), adopts the recommendations of a National Science Board Task Force on Administrative Burdens chaired by former APS President Artie Bienenstock. It was formed to solicit information from principal investigators (PIs) and to make recommendations. And based on that feedback, the legislation is expected to reduce the administrative burden on academic investigators. A Task Force report released on March 10, 2014, found that there is a substantial lack of consistency and standardization among agencies in all aspects of grants management, and that existing regulations are ineffective, create unnecessary work, or are inappropriately applied to research settings.

The report called for four principal recommendations:

  • agencies should focus on the science – that is, the peer review process and post-award oversight on merit and achievement;
  • there is a need to eliminate or modify ineffective regulations;
  • requirements should be harmonized and streamlined among various agencies; and
  • effective practices for university compliance with regulations should be promulgated. H.R. 5056 implements those recommendation and establishes a high level, interagency, inter-sector committee led by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to review federal regulations affecting research universities. That bill passed in the House by voice vote.

The second bill, titled International Science and Technology Cooperation Act of 2014 (H.R. 5029), directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to establish a body under the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) to identify and coordinate international science and technology cooperation that can strengthen the domestic science and technology enterprise and support United States foreign policy goals. That bill passed by a vote of 346-41.

The third bill, titled STEM Education Act (H.R. 5031), broadens the definition of STEM subject areas to include related fields such as computer science, expands NSF’s informal STEM education activities and makes changes to eligibility requirements for the NSF’s Noyce Fellowship program to include applicants who do not currently have master’s degrees. Computer science is typically associated with STEM fields, though by codifying it, the competition for grants from NSF’s Education and Human Resources directorate will be amplified as a greater number of subject areas are eligible to apply, even as funding remains stagnant. H.R. 5031 passed by voice vote.

The fourth bill is titled National Windstorm Impact Reduction Act of 2014 (H.R. 1786) and reauthorizes the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program. The National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program was created in 2004 and must be reauthorized every three years.  The bill provides $21M in annual funding for the program which is focused on windstorm research and mitigation efforts.  H.R. 1786 passed by a voice vote.

Fiscal Year 2015 Funding Update

Congress received President Obama’s fiscal year 2015 (FY15) budget request on March 4 and has been making steady progress on appropriations bills.  Appropriations bills concerning science agencies, defense, energy and health are in various stages of completion from being in subcommittee to having been voted on and passed on the floor. Bills in subcommittee are still open to change as they move forward to full committee. None have been passed by both the full House and Senate yet. 

The House has passed increases for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and NASA to $7.4B (+$230M), $0.85B (+$6M), and $17.9B (+$300M), respectively.  The Senate full committee has passed increases for NSF and NIST to $7.25B (+$80M) and $0.9B (+$40M) respectively, but a $17.46B (-$240M) reduction for NASA. 

For energy, the Senate subcommittee passed $5.08B (+$20M) for Department of Energy Office of Science whereas the House full committee passed flat funding, at $5.06B.  Only the House has moved on Department of Defense (DOD) appropriations, passing spending decreases to both DOD basic and applied research at to $2.02B (-$140M) and $4.53B (-$120M) respectively.  Both the Senate and House have agreed to $5.55M in funding for the Office and Science and Technology of the President.

Overall, the numbers mean that spending for science agencies, even those with proposed increases, is unlikely to even keep pace with inflation.  Grant success rates will remain stagnant at historic lows and will certainly decrease within programs slated for cuts.  Looking beyond FY15, there is no budget deal in place for FY16, and too much uncertainty to make predictions on future spending levels at this point.  With that in mind, however, now is a perfect time to reach out to your representatives and senators to remind them of the importance of funding scientific research.  If you’d like to contact Congress, APS provides easy to use tools at :

Keeping the U.S. Competitive in Particle Physics


APS President Malcolm R. Beasley recently authored an op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News, making a strong case for keeping the U.S. invested in the particle physics field. Beyond probing the funding laws of nature, the field has greatly benefited other areas of science and has led to the development of the Internet, MRI and advanced detection of explosive materials, among other innovations. Unfortunately, the field has lost about 50 percent of its research purchasing power during the past 25 years. To stay competitive, the U.S. needs a home base to conduct particle physics research– one that will likely lead to more discoveries in the wake of the Higgs boson that electrified the world.

Read the op-ed.

Physics leaders discuss life after Higgs with Congress



“We need to build,” said UC Santa Cruz Professor Steve Ritz, touting a central recommendation of the U.S. Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel’s (P5) recently released strategic plan, “Building for Discovery.”

Ritz made the important point during a Senate briefing last week.

But building things costs money, and federal support for particle physics – also referred to as high-energy physics – has declined in real terms by more than 50 percent during the past 25 years.

While best-known for breakthrough discoveries, such as the Higgs boson, within its own research realm, particle physics contributes broadly across other disciplines and in developing advanced technologies. Biologists, chemists and material scientists rely heavily on synchrotron light sources to conduct their research. MRI machines have become standard tools for medical diagnosis and proton accelerators are used to treat cancer.

With the future of U.S. particle physics uncertain and the P5 report in hand, physics leaders spent the last few weeks on Capitol Hill educating congressional members and staff on the essential role particle physics plays in our science enterprise and sharing the community’s vision for its future.

Their efforts were highlighted by the House Subcommittee on Energy’s June 10 hearing titled, “A Review of the P5: The U.S. Vision for Particle Physics After Discovery of the Higgs Boson.” The hearing’s witness panel was comprised of renowned physicists Steve Ritz (P5 chair and professor at UC Santa Cruz); Persis Drell (director emerita, SLAC National Laboratory); Nigel Lockyer (director, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory); and Natalie Roe (director, Physics Division, Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory).

The panel provided testimony and answered committee members’ questions, discussing the benefits of a healthy particle physics program to our country, the globalization of the field, the deliberative and inclusive process used in writing “Building for Discovery,” and a strategy to help America regain its primacy in particle physics in the era of constrained budgets.

Their testimonies reiterated a salient message from the P5 report: The U.S. must raise its game in construction of new facilities to remain a global leader in particle physics. “Without the capability to host a large project,” the report and Ritz’s testimony note, “the U.S. would lose its position as a global leader in this field, and the international relationships that have been so productive would be fundamentally altered.”

Given constrained budget requirements, the P5 panel made difficult choices and eliminated excellent research projects to increase resources for new facility construction and ready the nation for long-term success. But again, building new facilities requires resources, and the report’s lowest budget scenario (Scenario A) is precarious, approaching the point where hosting a world-class facility in the U.S. while maintaining the other components of a successful research program would not be possible. 

During the hearing, Ranking Member Eric Swalwell (D-CA15) deemed Scenario A “unacceptable” in his opening remarks. American Physical Society President Malcolm Beasley provided an additional warning about Scenario A in the form of a letter, which was submitted for the record by Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL14).

And Chairman Cynthia Lummis’ (R-WY) opening statement indicated support for scientific research is still a bipartisan issue: “…we cannot overlook the fact that the federal government plays a critical role when it comes to the nation’s long-term competitiveness in the physical sciences… In particle physics, the U.S. is already slipping and stands to lose its position of global significance if we do not act boldly.”

“Building for Discovery” provides a vision for the future of U.S. particle physics and a roadmap for making it a reality. But there is also a saying at the Pentagon that “a vision without resources is a hallucination.” Let’s hope Congress heeds Chairman Lummis’ advice and acts boldly. Otherwise, U.S. particle physics may become an oasis. 

NSF and NASA Funding

The House of Representative may vote on H.R. 4660, the Fiscal Year 2015 Commerce, Justice, Science bill that funds the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at any moment. Take action and write your Representative to let them know you support robust funding for science.

FIRST Act Markup – As Good As It Gets?

After months of speculation and a subcommittee markup in March, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology marked up the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology Act (FIRST Act) on May 21. As expected, Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and his colleagues on the Republican side of the aisle defended the provisions of the bill while Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and her colleagues on the Democratic side of the aisle spoke against the bill.

Chairman Smith opened the hearing lauding the FIRST Act as a step toward responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars while simultaneously noting the need for increased congressional oversight of the National Science Foundation (NSF). During both his opening and subsequent remarks, Chairman Smith stated that the bill would be in the best interest of the scientific community by pointing out that the spending level in the bill is slightly higher than in President Obama’s budget request. He failed to note that the increase would not keep pace with inflation. Smith also highlighted the need to redirect funding at NSF to emphasize greater focus on physical sciences and engineering. He added those grants should be justified before Congress as being in the national interest.

In her opening statement, Johnson spoke against the bill, emphasizing that there was no need to regulate the scientific process by shackling the already exemplary NSF. Quoting the proverb behind her on the Committee room wall, “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” Johnson reminisced about the first America COMPETES bill from 2007 and its reauthorization in 2010, both of which brought together members from both major political parties with a vision of America’s future. Johnson then lamented that the FIRST Act, rather than show vision, was an inflammatory piece of legislation that sowed distrust of scientists and injected politics into the scientific process. On the heels of her statement, Congressman Dan Maffei (D-NY), Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D-MD), Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and others on the minority side also spoke against the majority bill, echoing Johnson’s remarks and casting doubt on the need to treat scientists with suspicion.

During the markup, Edwards also identified a problematic technicality with the current bill, which authorizes funding for NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) for FY 2014. She pointed out that FY14 is nearly half over and that the agencies are currently spending funding appropriated in the Fiscal Year 2014 Omnibus bill passed by Congress. How, then, she asked, could this bill authorize funding that has been appropriated and begun to be spent? Edwards pressed Smith, who said that the appropriate adjustments would be made on the House floor. However, Edwards pointed out that it was unclear that such adjustments could actually be made. She then asked why the committee was holding a markup for a bill that would need further adjustments after the hearing. It is also noteworthy that the FIRST Act authorizes funding for the NSF below what the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee put in its FY15 bill.

Edwards also discussed a Washington Post op-ed that appeared on the day of the markup authored by Cornell University President David Skorton. In that piece, Skorton opined that unfounded attacks on social and behavioral sciences at the NSF were harmful, and that research coming out of those fields were extraordinarily valuable: “Addressing such problems as poverty and disease depends as much on a mastery of the broader issues that drive political and economic issues as it does on the science and technology involved.”

During the hearing, 28 amendments to the bill were introduced, almost all of them by minority members seeking to remove portions of the bill they and the scientific community believe to be most damaging. Among amendments proposed was one to remove directorate-level funding, striking section 106 requiring NSF to determine that a grant or cooperative agreement is in the national interest. Another amendment would have struck section 115 of the bill requiring that findings and conclusions of a principal investigator receiving a research grant from the NSF not contain any falsification, fabrication, or plagiarism and prohibit NSF from providing grants to a principal investigator who violated this requirement. Yet another amendment would have struck section 116, which states that the portion of a peer-reviewed grant application to NSF supporting the credentials of the principal investigator may not include more than five citations to articles published by the principal investigator.

All of the amendments failed during voice votes, but their sponsors requested recorded votes for the record: those have been scheduled for May 28th at 5:00pm. Notably, the National Science Board (NSB), adviser to the National Science Foundation, took the unprecedented step of issuing a statement against the FIRST bill as currently drafted. Johnson introduced statements that opposed the legislation, including the NSB’s, into the record.

In the end, it was clear that the Majority had every intention of passing the bill with the offensive provisions intact. What is unclear, however, is whether Smith will be able to secure House floor time for consideration of the bill and whether the Senate will take up its companion bill before the end of the session.

America Can’t Afford to Ignore Science


In my latest column in  Roll Call, I point out the following: “More affordable and healthful food, cheaper and cleaner sources of energy, more efficient and less expensive appliances, better and more affordable medical diagnostic instruments are all within reach if we continue to devote financial and intellectual capital to scientific research and education.”

Read the entire piece.


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