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US Congress passes strategic science bill

December 22, 2010 By Eugenie Samuel Reich This article courtesy of Nature News.

Crucial vote will boost funding for an array of federal science agencies

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Dreams of a US renaissance in basic research were kept alive today when the US House of Representative passed the America COMPETES Act, a key funding bill for the physical sciences. The milestone came as a huge relief to supporters of the bill, which only last week seemed likely to die with the current Congress at the end of this year. Then, after a dramatic rally of support in the US Senate on Friday, the bill found itself back in the House where it was briskly shepherded through to a final vote this afternoon. The bill now goes to President Barack Obama to be signed into law.

COMPETES is a re-authorization of a three-year 2007 act that followed recommendations in the US National Academies of Sciences 2005 report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm. The report recommended increased funding for science education and placed certain science funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), on a path to double their funding over ten years, relative to a 2007 baseline.

The bill's passage is a major victory for Bart Gordon, the Democrat congressman from Tennessee who spearheaded the legislation in 2007 and again in 2010. Gordon is retiring from the House after three years as Chairman of the House Science and Technology committee, and says he sees COMPETES as part of his legacy. "There is nothing I'm more proud of than the America COMPETES bill," Gordon told the House during the floor debate, "I cannot think of anything I would rather be doing in what is likely my final act on the House floor in 26 years of service than sending this bill to the president's desk."

US science leaders made an urgent call for COMPETES' re-authorization in September — even issuing a stirring update to the original National Academies report — but despite their best efforts the legislation expired in October before the Senate had time to pass it. Thus the Senate was not expected to pass its version of the bill this session of Congress, but found time for it on December 17, with Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, among those credited for bringing the bill forward. Alexander is a strong supporter of the Department of Energy's Office of Science, which is another of the agencies set to benefit from the funding increases mandated by COMPETES.

Ayes and nays

Once the Senate passed the bill, it remained today for the House, which had first passed it in May, to pass an amended version that matched that of the Senate. Although Republican Ralph Hall of Texas, the incoming chairman of the House Science and Technology committee, spoke in opposition to the bill because of its cost to taxpayers, his colleague, nuclear physicist Vernon Ehlers, a Republican Congressman from Michigan who is retiring at the end of this Congress, spoke strongly in favor. Ehlers said it was important not to abandon scientists, who contribute crucially to manufacturing in America. He gave the example of the laser as an economically important innovation that relied on only a few tens of thousands of dollars in US federal government investment. Ultimately the House signed up for the Senate's three-year instead of its own five-year version of the bill, at a total cost of $45 billion rather than $85 billion. The final vote was 228-130.

"We're very pleased. We think it's a very, very important statement in support of research," says Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities in Washington DC. His response is seconded by Elizabeth Rogan, the chief executive officer of the Optical Society of America in Washington DC, which represents over 100,000 professionals working in optics and photonics. "COMPETES authorizes essential funding for research agencies" she says, "many technologies that touch everyday life have been a direct result of years of federally funded research,"

Charles Vest, the president of the National Academy of Engineering in Washington DC, and a co-author of the National Academies' Rising Above the Gathering Storm reports, says he is relieved to see COMPETES pass after what he described as a "nail-biter" in the House today. "This is one step down the path toward a future with a vibrant economy and well-paying jobs," he says. He adds that he feels science, technology, engineering and mathematics education is continuing to get less emphasis than it should. "I respect the concerns expressed in the House about expenditures in tough fiscal times, but the fact is that these are absolutely essential investments in our future."

As a so-called "authorization bill", COMPETES will have teeth only to the extent that the funding levels it lays out are appropriated in practice over the next three years. Washington insiders sometimes compare the authorization amount to the equivalent of a credit card limit, where the appropriations are the actual charges. That analogy seems particularly apt at the present moment with concerns sky high over the US deficit. Although Congress has yet to pass the fiscal year 2011 budget, figures released by the House Appropriations Committee on Energy and Water show that it is likely to fund the Office of Science at a flat level of $4.9 billion, $0.2 billion below President Barack Obama's request, which was in line with the level set out by COMPETES.

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