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New COMPETES Reauthorization Bill Now Law

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Greetings from D.C. Congress passed, and the President has now signed into law, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (AICA), S. 3084, essentially reauthorizing the America COMPETES Act under a different name (with some changes in content, as would be expected). AICA joins a few other bills with “science-related” implications that were signed into law in the waning hours of the Obama Administration, like the CURES Act (focused on the National Institutes of Health [NIH] and life sciences) and the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) (which is focused on defense, including defense R&D issues, but also reauthorizes Small Business Innovation Research [SBIR] for 5 years). (Note: This column was written the week before the inauguration.)

This column focuses on the AICA—with broader implications for tech transfer generally. The reauthorization process began 2 years ago and included passage of a highly partisan House bill in 2015. This was followed by the Senate essentially rejecting that bill and embarking on a year-long approach to develop its own COMPETES reauthorization bill that focused on “basic research, STEM education, and technology transfer to inform their drafting process.” (See the June 2016 DC on T2 column.)

The result was the AICA, reconciled with the House and signed into law on January 6. In a press release announcing passage of the bill, Senator Gardner (R-CO), a co-sponsor of the bill, noted that the bill “maximizes basic research opportunities, reduces administrative burdens for researchers, encourages scientific entrepreneurship, and promotes oversight of taxpayer-funded research. [Further, it] promotes diversity in STEM fields, incentivizes private-sector innovation, and aims to improve manufacturing.” The final AICA most directly affects programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). While it is a departure from the partisan House bill passed in 2015, it does incorporate multiple House bills passed during the most recent session, including some aspects of the House COMPETES bill (see the House Science Committee press release). 

The bill has six titles: Maximizing Basic Research; Administrative and Regulatory Burden Reduction; Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics; Leveraging the Private Sector; Manufacturing; and Innovation and Technology Transfer. While there are potential tertiary implications for tech transfer under the first three titles (e.g., establishing an interagency working group for the purpose of reducing administrative burdens on federally funded researchers, and increasing the micro-purchase threshold, which could conceivably leak into tech transfer efforts), Titles IV and VI offer the most direct impact.

Under Title IV—Leveraging the Private Sector, the bill updates prize competition authority and grants agencies explicit crowdsourcing authority to encourage greater participation in these activities. As the bill notes, “the authority granted to Federal agencies [under the last COMPETES reauthorization in 2010] to pursue the use of incentive prizes and challenges has yielded numerous benefits … [and] crowdsourcing and citizen science projects [also] have a number of additional unique benefits, including accelerating scientific research, increasing cost effectiveness to maximize the return on taxpayer dollars, addressing societal needs, providing hands-on learning in STEM, and connecting members of the public directly to Federal science agency missions and to each other…”

Under Title VI—Innovation and Technology Transfer, the bill updates and expands the NSF I-Corps program (for use by agencies other than NSF) and updates NSF’s translational research grants programs. The bill states that “I-Corps is a useful tool in promoting the commercialization of federally funded research by training researchers funded by the Foundation in entrepreneurship and commercialization … [and] should continue to build a network of entrepreneurs, educators, mentors, and institutions and support specialized education and training …” For the translational research grants program, the bill notes that “not-for-profit organizations support the commercialization of federally funded research by providing useful business and technical expertise to researchers … [therefore, the NSF Director] shall continue to award grants on a competitive, merit-reviewed basis to eligible entities to promote the commercialization of federally funded research results.”

The specific details for each program can be found in the bill language. Also see a post by AIP (the American Institute of Physics) concerning the same topic. 

Gary can be reached at gkjones.ctr@federallabs.org.

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