Senate Committee Discusses U.S. Science Investments; COMPETES Bill Expected Soon

On May 11, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing entitled, “Leveraging the U.S. Science and Technology Enterprise.”  The Committee heard from a panel of experts in science and engineering representing the university and private sectors. The hearing was designed to inform the Committee’s efforts as it works to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act, which is legislation originally enacted in 2007 to bolster U.S. investment in basic scientific research. The Committee has oversight jurisdiction for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other basic science agencies.

Read on for full details and check out COSSA’s complete coverage of COMPETES legislation in the House and Senate.

Last year, Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD) created a working group of committee members tasked with engaging the scientific community and crafting legislation akin to the original COMPETES bill. Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Gary Peters (D-MI) chaired the working group, which hosted a number of roundtable discussions with stakeholders in 2015 (COSSA’s comments to the working group can be found here). Peters noted one common theme among the input received – modest, sustained and predictable investments in basic science are needed. Thune stated that a bill may be released in the coming days.

Kelvin Droegemeier, Vice President for Research at the University of Oklahoma and former Vice Chair of the National Science Board, made three recommendations for the Committee to consider when crafting legislation governing the U.S. scientific enterprise. First, the federal government should focus its investments on where it adds unique value, such as its support for basic science and innovation. Adding that there are “no sure bets” when it comes to determining which basic research investments will yield the next big innovation, Droegemeier warned against excluding support for any one discipline, such as the social and behavioral sciences. He used his own area of expertise in meteorology to illustrate an example of the value social and behavioral science research brings to human-centered challenges, such as responding (or not responding) to tornado warnings.

Second, Dr. Droegemeier suggested that legislation seek to reduce administrative burden associated with applying for and managing federal research grants, consistent with legislation currently being considered in the House and Senate and findings of the National Academies. Finally, he argued for science agency budgets to be more predictable so they may able to plan strategically for the future. COMPETES offers an opportunity to think big, even in times of budget constraints; it allows an opportunity to reinvest in basic research in all fields of science across the enterprise, Droegemeier added.

Jeanette Wing, Corporate Vice President for Research at Microsoft, testified on behalf of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which produced the report, Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the America Dream.” The report offers a set of recommendations to achieve three objectives: (1) secure America’s leadership in science and engineering research—especially basic research—by providing sustainable federal funding and setting long term investment goals; (2) ensure that the American people receive the maximum benefit from federal investments in research; and (3) regain America’s standing as an innovation leader by establishing a more robust national government-university-industry research partnership. Among the recommendations is to provide annual real growth of at least 4 percent for U.S. basic research. It further calls for a reaffirmation of the merit-based peer review process and ensuring that research decisions are left to scientific experts and agencies (a reference to what has been happening in the House). She too noted the importance of social and behavioral science research, calling it “critical for understanding the challenges we face as a country.” She added that the business community supports all of the recommendations of the report, citing the statement “Innovation: An American Imperative,” which was endorsed by CEOs of major U.S. corporations and calls on the federal government to establish research as a national priority.

Robert Atkinson, President of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), argued that it is “no longer enough to just fund scientific research,” stating that more efficiency is needed to ensure new knowledge is being translated into innovation. He argued for increased funding for manufacturing and commercialization and he endorsed the Manufacturing Universities Act of 2015 (S. 771), which would designate institutions of higher education as “manufacturing universities” eligible for targeted funding. He also called for reforms to the SBIR program and increased investment in the Manufacturing Extension Program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, high performance computing, and STEM talent and high-skilled immigration, particularly computer science education.

David Munson, Dean of Engineering at the University of Michigan, suggested that the greatest inefficiency in the U.S. research system is the low funding rates at U.S. science agencies, which force researchers to spend a large fraction of their time writing proposals and away from their research. Noting that about one in three proposals submitted for funding are excellent and merit funding, increasing the NSF budget by 50 percent could bring the funding rate up from 20 percent to about one-third. Further, increased research budgets would drive down the number proposals being submitted, saving time and effort for both researchers and agency staff, thereby increasing efficiency.

Several of the questions from the Committee centered on research priority setting. Dr. Droegemeier endorsed NSF’s current process for prioritizing research investments, which considers national needs and input from the scientific community. He cautioned against picking winners among the scientific disciplines and instead highlighted the value of providing an opportunity for researchers to present their big ideas, regardless of discipline. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) went a step further and asked if all federal research is of equal value, adding that “the answer can’t be yes.” Dr. Atkinson, whose organization has be vocal about prioritizing certain research areas at the expense of others, responded by suggesting that not all research is equal and that a purely bottom up (i.e. PI-driven) approach to identifying research questions is not the way to go since some areas of research will have a bigger economic impact than others. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) added to this line of questioning by asserting that federal funding should be “guided by the possibilities promised by science and technology and not by politics,” pointing to the approach taken by the House Science Committee through its version of COMPETES. He added, “Legislation should support the full range of science inquiry.”

Another common question was about the role of the federal government versus private industry relative to basic research. According to Dr. Wing, the federal government’s unique role is to fund the basic research that can be later brought to market by industry. She added that basic research supported by the federal government produces the talent (i.e. workforce) that is needed by industry. Dr. Droegemeier added that basic research is unpredictable, high-risk, and uncertain, which are not attractive characteristics to industry, making it a necessary function of the federal government. Sen. Peters asked if it would be harmful to target funding to specific applications or purposes. Dr. Munson suggested a balanced approach, noting that we should not lose the basic nature of research, but that targeted investment in certain areas is warranted, such as manufacturing.

Members also asked questions about the STEM workforce, improving participation of women and underrepresented minorities in science, and better coordination of agency research activities.

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