America COMPETES passes committee as some Republicans try to limit science spending

On April 28, the House Science and Technology Committee passed the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, a bill that re-examines and redefines the role of several key scientific agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.  But even as the bill passed 29 to 8 with overwhelming bipartisan support, several Republican members offered amendments to reduce science spending.

“This bill is a big deal,” said Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., in his opening remarks, characterizing the legislation as “an important step in our innovation agenda” affecting businesses and universities across the country.

The COMPETES bill would reauthorize the activities of the NSF, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology and the DOE Office of Science.  If maintained, the recommended funding increases would double the budget of the NSF and the Office of Science over the next 10 years.

“The path is simple,” Gordon said. “Research leads to innovation. Innovation leads to economic development and good paying jobs.”  Gordon said that over the past 20 years, the United States’ technology edge had slipped and that reversing that trend would require immediate additional investments.

But several Republican members were concerned about the spending levels authorized in the bill.

U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., offered an amendment that would have reduced spending and the length of the bill’s authorization to three years from five.

“This is a common-sense amendment,” Broun said.  He emphasized that eliminating two years of authorization would help the committee to maintain better oversight of the programs outlined in the bill.

A few Republicans supported Broun’s efforts.  U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., offered two of his own similar amendments to control spending.

“We’re bankrupting our country,” said Diaz-Balart.  Referring to recent international fiscal crises, Diaz-Balart continued, “We don’t want to be the next Greece or Argentina.”

U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, said he supported Diaz-Balart’s amendment and applauded it for trimming more than $1 billion in authorized spending. “This amendment is about prioritizing,” he said.

But the committee rejected Broun and Diaz-Balart’s arguments.

“This resolution undermines science,” said U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash, referring to Broun’s amendment.  Calling the amendment largely “specious,” Baird said uncertainty about future science funding threatens long-term research projects.

Gordon highlighted his efforts to compromise with members who were reluctant to increase spending, saying that he had reduced the authorized spending levels by 10 percent from an earlier version of the bill.

Gordon also argued that shortening the number of years authorized in the bill would not actually save money, because such amendments only delay decisions about how much should be spent in subsequent years.

Other Republican members supported Gordon’s proposed spending levels.

“As a true conservative, we need to be investing in what’s best for our children’s future,” said U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md.

“We are losing the technology battle,” Bartlett continued. “If we had done this 20 years ago, we’d be competing better.”

While Bartlett spoke favorably of the bill’s scientific investment, he refused to vote against his fellow Republicans, instead voting “present” on Broun and Diaz-Balart’s amendments.

U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., spoke in support of Gordon’s more robust funding proposal.  She and U.S. Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., voted with the majority of the committee against Broun and Diaz-Balart’s amendments.

With the committee’s approval, COMPETES moves to the U.S. House floor.  Senior Science and Technology Committee staff said they expect the bill will pass there before Memorial Day.

More information about COMPETES, including remarks, press releases and bill text can be obtained from the House Science and Technology Committee’s website.  The committee’s website includes a section-by-section description of the bill.

Also, ASBMB Science Policy Fellow Kyle Brown covered this hearing on Twitter.  Follow Kyle’s tweets from the Hill @kyle_m_brown.

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