To go from RAGS to legislation

July 4th, 2007

Posted by: admin

[David Bruggeman is a frequent contributor so we finally gave him an author tag. Click on his name to see all his posts. -eds]

One of the less publicized legislative efforts this year is the second attempt to pass parts of the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), introduced by President Bush in his 2006 State of the Union address. Many of the pieces of the ACI were recommended in the widely cited National Academies Report Rising Above the Gathering Storm. The parts of ACI that attracted the most attention of science and technology community were the goals of doubling the budgets for NSF, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the research accounts of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Those increases were part of the President’s FY 2007 Budget Request, but failed due to the inability of Congress to pass most of the budget for that year. The FY 2008 request shows the Administration still committed to doubling those budgets over 10 years. But the Executive Branch cannot implement the full ACI without legislative action.

Efforts to enact other parts of the ACI have not been as forthcoming. Three bills introduced in 2006 (two in the House, one in the Senate) to strenghten and expand federal programs to encourage more students to major in Science, Technoogy, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines, as well as expand early career awards for researchers, withered on the legislative vine (although the House legislation did make it out of committee). Very similar legislation was introduced again this year, and as the Democrats have made some noise about an innovation agenda, there has been some progress. Currently both the House and Senate have passed legislation which awaits a conference to hammer out the differences. Both bills can be examined in detail through the THOMAS website maintained by the Library of Congress.

The House legislation, HR2272, is an omnibus bill containing pieces of earlier legislation. HR2272 includes reauthorization legislation for both NSF and NIST, reauthorization of the High Performance Computing Act, and language to increase education programs encouraging more majors in STEM disciplines (and for more of those majors to teach at the K-12 level) and programs to support early career researchers in physical science disciplines. The early career research awards would be through both the NSF and the Department of Energy.

The Senate bill, S761, would include most of the same provisions. The differences, to the extent I can discern them, have to do with specific numbers – funding, number of grants/fellowships/etc. Both bills also mandate various studies on STEM education and innovation, as well as some kind of coordinating mechanism for the federal government with respect to improving innovation. Hopefully those efforts, if enacted, could be informed by (and help guide) the nascent federal research programs on the science of science policy and innovation. But I’m a dreamer.

Each bill contains a previously discontinued federal technology program administered by NIST. (If some readers find this sufficiently interesting, it may be worth a separate post). The Senate bill reinstates the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Technology, a kindred program to EPSCoR, the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. In each case, the program aims to improve the competitiveness of states that have historically received fewer federal dollars. The House bill creates what they call the Technology Innovation Program (TIP), but this appears to be a renaming of the Advanced Technology Program (ATP). ATP has been heavily criticized as ineffective, corporate welfare, or both. It is intended to help bridge a funding gap – the so-called ‘valley of death’ between initial development and commercialization. ATP would have been fully defunded by now, but the failure to enact the FY 2007 budget for NIST gave ATP another year of life – and forced NIST to continue a program it had prepared to dismantle. A surface comparison shows little difference betwen the TIP and ATP, and language allows for continuation of current ATP awards under the TIP.

While this legislation is much further along compared to this time last year, there is no guarantee that there will be a bill to sign by the end of the year. A conference has yet to be scheduled, while both bills have been ready since late May. As science and technology policy have rarely, if ever, been a high legislative priority, these bills may take a long time to get to the President’s desk. While the Administration is generally supportive of the doubling, they have expressed dissatisfaction with the new programs and additional costs in the legislation. As President Bush rarely uses the veto pen, this may be an empty threat. But this is not yet a finished project.

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