House and Senate negotiators have reached agreement on a bill to authorize major increases in research at the National Science Foundation, new programs to encourage innovation and significant increases in support for math and science teacher education.
Differing portions of H.R. 2272, the America COMPETES Act -- or the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science Act -- were passed by both chambers over the past several months, with the packaged conference bill, finalized on Tuesday, expected to reach the floor of the House of Representatives on Thursday and the Senate on Friday.
Supporters expect easy passage, and while the Bush administration has threatened vetoes of legislation that exceeds White House budget requests, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, "I would be very surprised if the president didn't sign this with a flourish." He added that the funds authorized by the bill are "within the budget, but it's not appropriated yet," and said some "back and forth" wrangling might occur, but that he expects passage on what he considers a top priority for Congress.
The three-year, $40 billion (if Congress fully funds it) bill is the product of concern among legislators and educators that the United States is losing its competitive edge in the sciences and technology, a sentiment that received enormous attention after the National Academies' 2005 report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm". The bill includes, among other goals, a 10-percent increase in research and development funds and major initiatives for teacher training.
The bill covers dozens of initiatives and programs, with provisions that would:
- Authorize $22 billion to the NSF over the next three fiscal years, with an eye toward doubling the total research budget in seven years, plus $2.652 billion to the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Beyond significant support for K-12 science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, the NSF funding would also go toward grants for first-time investigators and those who show early promise, such as the CAREER program and graduate research fellowships.
- Continue funding the Department of Energy's Office of Science to keep it on a seven-year doubling path, which would benefit basic research and various university facilities nationwide, as well as create an early career grant for researchers and graduate research fellowships. The bill would also establish grants to universities for expanding degree programs in "nuclear sciences and hydrocarbon systems sciences."
- Create the Technology Innovation Program (TIP), based on the previous Advanced Technology Program, which would support higher-risk, smaller-scale research in small or medium-sized firms that could lead to the development of innovative new technologies. The program, unlike its predecessor, would encourage increased university involvement with projects, a move hailed by the Association of American Universities.
- Create programs at the Department of Education to align grade-school math and science curriculums with the requirements of college courses and the workplace. It would also authorize $151.2 million over the next three fiscal years to help students to earn bachelor's degrees in a science or math field or critical foreign language concurrently with a teacher certification (in return for a commitment to teach), and $125 million to aid existing teachers who want to improve their knowledge base in part-time graduate programs.
- Require the president to hold a summit on American math and science practices, and create a President's Council on Innovation and Competitiveness.
- Urge the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to use the Undergraduate Student Research program to encourage research on space-related topics.
Lobbying groups representing research universities were pleased with the outcome, since the bill constitutes measures they have been advocating for some time. The National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, for example, welcomed the final version of the bill. At the same time, Tobin Smith, AAU's associate director of federal relations, said that the association is still awaiting the "second part of the puzzle": the appropriations process. While the America COMPETES Act authorizes funds, the actual resources must be appropriated through several separate bills forthcoming from Congress.
Among its many provisions, the bill's significant emphasis on boosting STEM education will likely receive notice, especially in light of President Bush's American Competitiveness Initiative and pressure from educators.
"It’s a misconception that all we’re trying to do here is create Ph.D. scientists," said Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology. "What we’re trying to do in addition to that is to create high-school graduates, junior-college graduates and bachelor's graduates who have the types of skills to go into American businesses now and work at higher levels."
Richard Herman, a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, has made science education -- and boosting the nation's teaching corps -- one of his priorities as chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"If you go back to the National Defense Education Act, which I actually went to graduate school on, it was basically brought about by Sputnik. The idea of creating special circumstances for those who might be interested in the teaching of science and mathematics is what’s important here," he said.
The bill's various grant and scholarship programs for future science and math teachers would be a step in that direction, Herman implied. "My goal at this institution is to create more opportunities for students who are majoring in science and mathematics and engineering" -- such as teaching in K-12 schools.
Beyond the advantages from university educators' point of view, lawmakers also see benefits in the potential to eventually create more American jobs.
"This will strengthen our research universities, and in fact all of our universities, in their science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs, and because it does, it will make them more attractive to the most talented researchers and students around the world who we want to come to the United States because they create jobs here," Alexander said.