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Senate Moving (Maybe) on COMPETES Reauthorization

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Greetings from D.C. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation (CST) Committee recently held a hearing on “Leveraging the U.S. Science and Technology Enterprise,” signaling a “possible” break in the effort to reauthorize one of the key legislative vehicles to support broad federal S&T policy over the past few cycles—the America COMPETES Act.

America COMPETES has been reauthorized several times since its initial passage almost a decade ago. With each reauthorization attempt, the debate over what it should—and should not—include (i.e., funding levels, programs, durations) has grown more contentious. This culminated in last summer’s passage of the most-recent House bill on a nearly party line vote (See Dispatch, June 2016). While the Chair of the House Committee originating the bill noted that it “prioritizes basic research and development while staying within the caps set by the Budget Control Act,” the Ranking Member of the Committee stated that it “abandons the legacy of COMPETES by flat-funding R&D investments … [and to be clear, the majority is] abandoning our future.” Not a lot of common ground between the two positions.

The Senate then began its deliberations for reauthorization, but indicated early on that it was not inclined to pass the House version of the bill. Instead, as reported by AIP, the Senate “opted to take a more bipartisan approach, launching an ‘Innovation and Competitiveness Working Group’ last July … [and in the following months], held a series of three closed-door roundtables focused on basic research, STEM education, and technology transfer to inform their drafting process.”

At the same time as the House passed its America COMPETES reauthorization bill, the Senate introduced and began deliberations on several proposals that individually could become part of an overall reauthorization bill (e.g., S. 1398, Energy Title of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015), which have not made any real progress since the decision to hold the roundtable working groups shortly thereafter.

The recent Senate hearing appears to signal that they may be about to begin consideration of their America COMPETES bill in the near future. Again, from the American Institute of Physics (AIP) summary, they noted that “much of the hearing focused on how the federal government should decide what types of R&D to support rather than how best to allocate a hypothetical increased amount of spending. Other topics discussed included how to reduce administrative burden, better match STEM job demand and supply, increase retention of students in STEM majors, improve technology transfer from universities and the national labs (emphasis added), and distinguish healthy competition from duplicative research.”

Initial reports suggest that the Senate will begin consideration of its America COMPETES bill in early June. Although typically I would wait until a bill had been proposed before committing column space to it (which I will in the future), the America COMPETES Act is a vitally important piece of legislation that, as noted above, has played a key role in setting federal S&T policy in areas ranging from basic research funding to STEM education support to, more recently, finding ways to get the greatest bang for that federal investment (i.e., tech transfer). It’s an important effort for the federal lab community in general and potentially for the tech transfer community specifically, and therefore one that our folks should be made aware of.

You can find an archived webcast of the hearing along with witness statements and opening comments from the committee chair and a statement from the minority side here.

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

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