Voicing concern over America’s math and science competitiveness, a Senate committee on Thursday unanimously approved legislation that would push physical science research and teaching partnerships involving colleges and government agencies.
“Rarely today do bills come out like this in such bipartisan fashion,” said Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), of the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2006.
More than one senator on the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation cited the National Academy of Sciences' “Rising Above the Gathering Storm”  report as a fire that has set Washington ablaze with concern about global science and technology competitiveness -- particularly with respect to China and India -- in recent months.
The bill calls both for increased support for physical science research at government agencies, and for several new programs that have academe in mind.
For Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), the emphasis in the bill should be on physical science. At an earlier hearing  about the National Science Foundation’s priorities, Hutchison referred to some social science research as a “burden” on NSF that is distracting from the goal of technological competitiveness.
Hutchison reiterated her feeling that Congress should “focus on science and technology" because "we are responding to a crisis in our country.” Hutchison added that she is “not against social sciences being part of the NSF budget,” but that “I want to make sure we focus on the mission we are after.” Hutchison appeared to be using a broad definition of social science when she noted that biology, geology, economics, and archaeology are worthy pursuits, but can often stray from the innovation and competitiveness path.
She again cited specific NSF funded social science studies that she thinks should not be funded by the foundation. “I object to the study of … the impact of global changes on 300 women workers in Bangladesh,” she said. “I want good social science research,” she adding, noting endeavors like the development of digital technology for teaching children.
On Wednesday, Hutchison proposed an amendment that would have forced NSF to give funding priority to work that is expected to make contributions in the physical sciences, technology, engineering, or math. By voting time, however, a compromise was reached with Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and, while the language in the bill places special emphasis on the physical sciences, Hutchison's amendment was changed to allow NSF to be flexible with its funding priorities.
Tobin Smith, associate director of federal relations at the Association of American Universities, said that AAU's view is that NSF "does a pretty good job" figuring out what projects are central to its mission, and that it needs flexibility to do so effectively. "We would argue that there is value to the social science work NSF does," he said.
Arden L. Bement, director of NSF, has argued in the past that social science funding is not only good in its own right, but helps technology become integrated more quickly into the economy.
Hutchison’s was the lone voice of concern Thursday.
The bill authorizes over $6 billion for NSF for the 2007 fiscal year, which is in line with the president's budget request. The money still has to be appropriated, though, for NSF to receive it, even if the bill is passed.
The bill would also authorize the NSF to give 2,500 additional grants to be used for graduate research fellowships and for the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program , which preps doctoral science and engineering students for interdisciplinary work.
NSF would also establish a clearinghouse to share best practices from four-year institutions, industry, and government agencies with regard to professional science masters degree programs. Professional science masters programs are often interdisciplinary programs that may not require a thesis, but require internships, and training in a non-science field, such as business, or communications.
In prior hearings, senators and witnesses suggested that such programs will help to get more minority students into graduate level science. Under the bill, grants would be available for professional science masters pilot programs at four-year institutions.
The legislation would also have the National Institute of Standards and Technology set aside at least 8 percent of its annual budget for “high-risk, high reward research” that might be “too novel or spans too diverse a range of disciplines to fare well in the traditional peer review process,” according the bill. Eighty percent of that money would be in the form of competitive grants.
A set of amendments to the bill were also approved Thursday, one of which, introduced by Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), ranking Democrat on the committee, that would give NSF grants to community colleges to establish apprenticeship programs for women pursuing technical training. In addition, NSF would be directed to start a mentoring program that would pair female high school, college, and graduate students in the sciences with industry mentors.
With regard to the unanimous, bipartisan support for the bill, Lautenberg said simply, "it feels so good."