Science Competitiveness, Bit by Bit

House panel approves bill to bolster physical sciences research, after stripping provisions that bogged it down last year.
March 1, 2007

The federal government's push to strengthen basic research and science education as part of a larger goal of bolstering "American competitiveness" has that motherhood and apple pie feel to it; who (in the United States, anyway) is likely to oppose it? 

Yet legislation to promote those goals, through additional research funds, expanded awards and assistantships for young researchers, and college scholarships for would-be math and science teachers, among other things, stalled repeatedly in the 109th Congress, despite bipartisan backing and support from President Bush. Largely to blame for the lack of progress, Capitol Hill aides and research lobbyists say, was in-fighting among Congressional committees and the House and Senate over who has authority for what.
Leaders in the new 110th Congress hope to break the logjam, and along those lines, the House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology took up one key element of the competitiveness package Wednesday, though in narrowed form aimed at propelling it, finally, through Congress and onto President Bush’s desk.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the chairman of the science panel, and Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Tex.), its senior Republican, introduced a revamped version of legislation that passed the House last year that aims to bolster academic basic research in the physical sciences, mathematics and computer science. The measure got bogged down in the Senate in the last Congress in part because the bill  set proposed spending levels for several agencies including the Department of Defense, a move that was perceived as impinging on the authority of Congressional committees that oversee the Pentagon. (Gordon said during Wednesday’s hearing that this bill and others had faced “jurisdictional problems, heavy jurisdictional problems – maybe I shouldn’t say that.”)

So in the new version of H.R. 363, the “Sowing the Seeds Through Science and Engineering Research Act” that Gordon and Hall introduced Wednesday, they excised from the bill entirely the section that sought to authorize spending levels for individual agencies. (Gordon noted that those levels – which are only recommendations anyway, and do not bind Congressional appropriators who set the actual amounts Congress spends on the programs and agencies each year -- would be set in the pieces of legislation that extend the authority of the individual agencies.)

Remaining in the measure are provisions that would:

  • Administer awards to outstanding early-career researchers in academe and in nonprofit research organizations.
  • Provide graduate research assistantships in areas of national need.
  • Establish a “national coordination office” to set priorities for university and national research infrastructure needs.

The committee’s aim, Gordon said, is to “slim the bills down so they are basically just in our jurisdication. We’ve tried to accommodate the Senate on some of their quirks over there,” he said, adding, “We’re trying to not just talk about things but try to get some competitiveness things forward through the Congress.”

Added Hall:  “We’re hoping that the third time's the charm.”

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