Congress passed the “American Innovation and Competitiveness Act,” S. 3084. The Senate unanimously approved the bill on 10 December 2016, the last day of the legislative session. The legislation was then adopted during a pro forma session of the House of Representatives.
“Sending this bill to the White House is an overtime victory for science in the closing days of 2016,” said Senator John Thune (R-SD), who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. “This bill only passed the Senate in the early morning hours of Saturday after the House had already finished its business. It looked like the clock had run out, but the bipartisan team of House and Senate supporters behind this bill kept pushing.”
S. 3084 is a partial successor to the America COMPETES Act, which authorized funding for the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Standards and Technology and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The legislative authorizations for these agencies expired three years ago.
Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) – the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology – supported the bill, but regretted that it did not recommend funding levels. “I believe that is a missed opportunity to send a signal to U.S. scientists and the world about how much we value and need a vibrant U.S. science and technology enterprise.”
The bill sets new policy directions for NSF, as well as reaffirms some existing policies. It sustains the current system of evaluating proposals on the basis of intellectual merit and broader impacts, but adds that this system is “to assure that the Foundation’s activities are in the national interest…” This is a departure from the language included in the House-passed bill that would have required NSF only fund grants that meet one of six categories in support of the “national interest.” In response to the strong concerns of representatives of the scientific community, this provision was removed from the final legislation.
The American Innovation and Competitiveness Act directs the NSF to provide public justification of each grant awarded, including a non-technical description of the project’s purpose. The agency has already been working to improve communications about its funding decisions to the public. These policy changes were motivated because of additional congressional scrutiny over particular award decisions, especially for social science and climate research.
New oversight will be given to large research projects funded by NSF’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction account. Several projects have been the target of congressional oversight due to projected cost overruns and lax management by NSF.
The legislation further directs NSF to evaluate needs for mid-scale research instrumentation and facilities. The agency currently funds more expensive projects ($100,000-$4,000,000 for instruments and $100 million or more for major facilities), but there is no dedicated funding for less expensive projects.
NSF will also have to report to Congress annually about rotators who are paid higher than the maximum rate of pay for the Senior Executive Service. Some lawmakers have expressed concern that temporary employees on loan to NSF from universities and other research institutions are paid more than permanent federal employees.
The Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) will be renamed to the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. The program directs funding to states and U.S. territories that have historically received less federal research funding than other states.
A new interagency working group will be established to provide recommendations on eliminating unnecessary and redundant paperwork for researchers and institutions. The group is directed to explore uniform grant proposals and financial disclosures, and to review regulations on research progress reports.
The bill directs federal science agencies to update policies on attendance at scientific and technical workshops. For the past five years, federal scientists have experienced difficulties in attending scientific conferences due to guidance issued by the White House for agencies to cut travel costs.
The legislation also includes numerous sections regarding science education, including a new advisory panel on diversity in the federal scientific workforce and program changes to improve retention of science teachers in NSF’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program.
S. 3084 was signed into law on January 6, 2017.