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AAS Informational Email 2007-10

America COMPETES Act and NSF Authorization

L. Jeremy Richardson
John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow

Two recent Congressional actions have direct bearing on the scientific community, and on the astronomy community in particular. Both are authorization bills, meaning no money is appropriated, but they indicate that scientific research and innovation are on the minds of many Members of Congress.

America COMPETES Act

On 25 April 2007, the Senate passed the America COMPETES Act (S.761). This bill is remarkable because it enjoyed broad bipartisan support, passing the Senate by a vote of 88-8, with 69 co-sponsors. Speaking on behalf of the bill on the Senate floor, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said of the bipartisan nature of the bill, "Frankly, this is the way we used to do legislation here."

The story of the America COMPETES Act began over two years ago, when Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) requested a study from the National Academy of Sciences on maintaining American economic advantage in a world increasingly faced with technological challenges and global competition. The resulting report, led by Norm
Augustine and titled "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," has become something of a rallying cry among lawmakers trying to tackle the problem of protecting American scientific and technological leadership. In addition to Reid, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) also co-sponsored the bill, and the two Senators led the effort to bypass the committees that have jurisdiction over the bill and bring it directly to the Senate floor. It passed only three weeks after it was introduced.

As astronomers know all too well, the success of a mission depends critically on its acronym, and Congress apparently realizes this as well. COMPETES is short for "Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science," also called the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act. The bill is massive and contains provisions that promote scientific research and innovation, expand educational programs for students and teachers, and establish infrastructure to monitor progress (committees, etc).

Of interest to the astronomical community, NASA is specifically recognized as a full participant in interagency activities designed to promote innovation and competitiveness as well as educational activities. This is an important departure from the President's American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), which seeks to increase funding for three targeted agencies, NSF, DoE's Office of Science, and NIST. While the America COMPETES Act authorizes $160 million above the 2005 authorization level for basic science and research, however, it actually appropriates no new funds and in fact directs NASA to find these costs savings within its current programs

In addition to NASA, the bill also focuses on NSF, NOAA, NIST, and DoE, as well as multiple educational activities. In particular, it authorizes a five-year doubling of the NSF budget and a ten-year doubling of the DoE's Office of Science. The bill expands educational programs at NSF, including both the Graduate Research Fellowship Program and the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program, which would have an additional 1,250 students each over the next 5 years. It also authorizes increased support for NSF's Robert Noyce Scholarship Program, which is designed to recruit and train math and science teachers in high need areas.

Attention turns now to the House, where similar legislation is in the works, through a series of bills rather than a single large bill. Much will have to be worked out in conference.

NSF Authorization

By a vote of 399-17, H.R.1867 passed the House on 2 May 2007. The bill authorizes funding for FY 2008, 2009, and 2010 for NSF. It has been received in the Senate and read twice.

The bill authorizes $16.4 billion over 2008-2010 for NSF's Research and Related Activities account. The final FY 2007 amount for R&RA was $4.765 billion, which supports most of NSF's science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research. The authorized levels are $5.080 billion for FY 2008, $5.457 billion for FY 2009, and $5.863 billion for FY 2010.

The bill also authorizes increases in Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC). The final FY 2007 level was $191 million, and the authorized levels are $245 million for FY 2007, $262 million for FY 2009, and $280 million for FY 2010. Finally, for NSF's Education and Human Resources accounts, the final FY 2007 level was $698 million, and the bill authorizes $873 million for FY 2008, $934 million for FY 2009, and $1.003 billion for FY 2010.

Again, both of these bills (H.R.1867 and S.761) are authorization bills, and the appropriations process is only beginning. We will be monitoring this process, and we will keep you informed on how you can help.


Mailed to AAS members from 9 May 2007.

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