Out of Favor With House GOP

Bill to set spending targets for science agencies has modest overall increases, but cuts for social sciences and energy research.

April 23, 2015

Republicans won the first scrimmage Wednesday over how much money should be devoted to federal research in coming years -- and how that money ought to be divvied up. 

The America COMPETES Act passed along straight party lines in a 19 to 16 vote after a more than five-hour drafting session Wednesday in the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Despite roughly 30 attempts by the outnumbered Democrats on the committee to amend the bill, it sailed through with only slight changes. 

The bill sets suggested funding levels for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. While overall research and development spending would see a slight boost over what was appropriated this year, the bill suggests a reshuffling of money that would result in cuts to social sciences, climate and energy research.

For the National Science Foundation, the authorizing bill proposes a $7.6 billion budget, which is $253 million above this year's actual funding level. The legislation proposes funds for the agency's individual directorates, adding more than $100 million each to the offices for biology, computing, engineering, and math and physical sciences.

But those boosts appear to come at the expense of others. The bill recommends a $140 million cut -- roughly 45 percent -- to the Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences and a $165 million, or 8 percent, cut to the Geosciences Directorate. Also on the chopping block is funding for the Energy Department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which would see a more than 30 percent cut from current levels, and funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, where the budget would be cut in half, to $140 million.

Texas Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said that in the week since the bill was unveiled, 30 groups representing the nation's scientists and researchers had written letters of concern or opposition.

Among them are letters from the Association of American Universities, the American Physical Society and the Consortium of Social Science Associations, all of which opposed the legislation. The American Association for the Advancement of Science didn't go as far as opposing it, but its letter expressed concerns similar to those of other groups about cuts to certain areas. 

"If the very scientists and engineers you wrote this bill for want nothing to do with it, why are we even here today?" Johnson said at the start of the markup. 

Texas Republican Lamar Smith, chairman of the House science committee, said he'd received letters of support for the bill he introduced. But when asked by a committee member what organizations authored those letters, there weren't any from national science organizations.

The hit on social sciences should come as no surprise to those who’ve followed the House science committee in the past two years.

Smith, the chairman, has butted heads with the National Science Foundation over its peer-review process, questioning the usefulness of social sciences projects. He also introduced legislation in the committee last year similar to this COMPETES Act that was even more unpopular with scientists.

While the 2015 version doesn’t explicitly attack the NSF grant-making process, it does include a new policy provision that would require the science foundation to issue a written explanation of how a grant award meets national interest. Democrats tried to strike that language from the bill, but, like most their other efforts, that failed.

The bill would renew legislation passed in 2007 and 2010 under the name COMPETES Act. The 2010 version expired in 2013.

Yet Johnson said that having no bill at all would be better than the one Republican committee members passed Wednesday.

"This bill is an ‘America Competes’ bill in name only," she said in a statement. "It does nothing to further our scientific and innovation enterprise."

One-Sided Proposal

When the law was first drafted and then renewed in 2010, the whole process was very bipartisan, said Bill Bates, executive vice president and chief of staff of the Council on Competitiveness.

Both previous versions served as strong statements that Congress prioritized STEM education, research and the country’s overall ability to be innovative. This time around, at least so far, it doesn’t appear the legislation reflects that same bipartisanship, Bates said.

Democratic committee members said they weren't invited to give their input on the bill prior to Wednesday's meeting, and there are no Democratic sponsors.

Instead, the Democrats rallied around an alternative written by Johnson. The bill would provide $7.7 billion to the National Science Foundation and would restore proposed cuts to the agency's operations office and education and human resources office. The amount suggested for research, about $6.2 billion, is the same as in the Republican version, but it is provided as a lump sum, rather than by directorate.

Johnson's bill would increase budget targets for 2017, while the Republican version suggests keeping them flat. 

But Johnson's amendment failed in a party-line vote, as did attempts by several members to achieve aspects of Johnson's bill individually. Those included increasing the amount allocated to STEM education, increasing the NSF operations budget to finish plans for a new headquarters, removing the directorate-level funding at NSF, adding money for renewable energy, and recognizing climate change research as a priority.

In response, Republicans said attempts to add money without offsetting the increases ignored the tough financial decisions Congress has to make under the current discretionary-spending caps. The act prioritizes the areas where federal dollars can have the most effect and cuts waste and duplication, they said.

Jennifer Poulakidas, vice president of congressional and governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, said that she was pleased that the bill proposes an overall increase to the NSF in 2016, but that the APLU was concerned about the proposed cuts to research programs within the Department of Energy. 

The practice of setting funding levels at the NSF by directorate also is troubling, because it opens the NSF up to a more political way of funding, she said. That concern was echoed by several Democratic committee members Wednesday, who said the agency's offices would be subject to funding decisions based on political whims.

Politics in Science

Roger Pielke Jr. doesn’t see today’s political debates over science funding as that different from those of previous generations, such as in the 1970s, when Congress forced the Research Applied to National Needs program on the NSF. Pielke is a professor of environmental science at the University of Colorado at Boulder and directs the university’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research.

As a social scientist, he understands the frustration of having the fields' relevance repeatedly questioned by politicians. But he also thinks that scientists should expect scrutiny from politicians.

That’s just the nature of having science being germane to the issues of the day, he said. When research becomes high profile, it often becomes politicized, and as long as federal money is going to that research, politicians are going to have questions.

Yet for all the politicized battles, at the end of the day, overall research funding consistently does well in terms of discretionary spending. Pielke doubts that will change, no matter what party controls Congress.  

“Everyone loves science,” he said. “Republicans and Democrats just love it in different ways and for different reasons over time.”

The bill heads to the full House now, though it still has a long way to go before becoming law. The proposed spending limits diverge from those in President Obama's budget proposal, and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hasn't introduced a version of COMPETES Act reauthorization yet. The committee's chairman, John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, issued a joint statement with Representative Smith Wednesday that said the two would work together to determine how limited federal money can have the greatest effect on research. 

This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the statements of Jennifer Poulakidas and the position of the APLU in regards to the funding authorizations proposed in the bill.


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