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Unhealthy competition

The latest round of bickering in Congress looks set to increase the pressure on research agencies’ budgets and missions, reports Rebecca Trager.

The 2007 America COMPETES Act was born in an era of bipartisan support for scientific research in the United States Congress. Prompted by concerns that the country’s pre-eminence in science and technology was being eroded, it was aimed at doubling the budgets of three physical-science agencies—the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the National Institute of Standards and Technology—over seven years.

At the time, the House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space and Technology was chaired by a moderate Republican, Sherwood Boehlert. Now, with the Act up for reauthorisation, a sign of the changes since Boehlert retired in 2007 is that Republicans and Democrats on the committee have produced radically different legislative proposals.

The COMPETES Act has already been watered down. The budget requests of George W Bush’s administration stretched the seven-year doubling target to 10 years, and the 2010 reauthorisation by Congress drew the timeline out to 11 years.

On 28 October, Democrats on the science, space and technology committee released a proposal to reauthorise the Act in such a way that would provide annual budget increases of 5 per cent for the three agencies, using the budget for fiscal year 2014 as a baseline. In this way, the agencies’ budgets would be double their 2006 levels by about 2022, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Republicans, meanwhile, have taken a piecemeal approach. The committee’s chairman Lamar Smith has released draft legislation that would reauthorise funding for the Office of Science separately from that for the NSF and the NIST. Democrats say the proposal would provide annual budget increases of only 1 to 1.7 per cent, against research inflation of 3 per cent. They also say that the draft sidelines climate change research by directing the office’s Biological and Environmental Research programme to “prioritise fundamental research on biological systems and genomics”. Cynthia Lummis, another Republican on the committee, told Environment and Energy Daily that, given cuts to other agencies, any increase greater than 1.7 per cent would be “a very challenging lift”.

On 6 November, the committee’s Republicans circulated another discussion draft detailing plans to reauthorise funding for the NSF and the NIST, but without providing any figures. This would direct the NSF to provide written justification for each research grant or cooperative agreement that it funds, describing how the work contributes to the achievement of any of six goals, including increasing economic competitiveness, advancing national health and welfare, and supporting national defence.

The Republican draft would also compel the NSF to name the employees behind funding decisions, and establish procedures to prevent duplicating grants by other federal agencies. This push for increased oversight is a sticking point for congressional Democrats, the Obama administration and researchers, who say it puts an undue burden on the NSF and politicises science. A spokesman for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology says that the agency’s peer-review system should already address the Republicans’ concerns.

Senator Lamar Alexander, a moderate Republican who is the ranking member of his party on the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds the NSF, has urged lawmakers to continue the vision of the original Act. “I am asking you…to authorise the appropriations committees to finish the job that Congress started in an overwhelming, remarkable bipartisan way in 2007,” Smith told the Senate‘s Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on 6 November. In the Senate, Alexander has teamed up with Democrat Christopher Coons to draft the most generous proposal so far, which would reportedly raise science funding for the Department of Energy by 50 per cent by 2018, to $6.9 billion annually.

The House science committee’s inability to reach agreement on such foundational legislation as COMPETES is a pointer for negotiations on other science and technology legislation and budgets. Authorisations of the type laid out in the COMPETES Act set funding targets, whereas appropriations dictate the actual funding.

The gap between Congress’s authorisations and its appropriations is growing. Since 2010, funding for the agencies covered by the COMPETES Act fell a combined $6bn below its targets, according to the AAAS. The sequestration cuts of earlier this year accounted for less than $1bn of this. The knock-on effect of the COMPETES Act dispute could be less ambitious targets for science agencies and, accordingly, even lower appropriations.

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