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Dueling legislation: Senate and House propose multiple STEM reauthorization bills

STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) research and education is one area in which the United States has traditionally excelled. In 2007, Congress and the Administration recognized the importance of these areas in the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act, a bipartisan effort to double research funding at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science.

Currently, however, legislation to reauthorize America COMPETES exists in competing forms in both houses of Congress. Overall, there is an acknowledgment that it is extremely important to provide a steady source of reliable funding to encourage U.S. STEM institutions to retain their current researchers and foster the next generation of workers and to increase the connections and technology transfer with industry and the private sector. But emphasis has been placed on different areas in different draft legislation currently under consideration, which could slow the progress of the overall reauthorization effort.

In the Senate, legislation for a relatively simple reauthorization of the America COMPETES act is being developed; one section of the draft bill would keep working toward the original COMPETES goal of eventually doubling the 2007 levels of STEM funding by increasing the DOE’s science budget to $6.9 billion over the five years. It would encourage the consolidation and elimination of redundant or inefficient programs in order to more effectively spend taxpayer dollars on STEM research. In the first hearing for the draft legislation on 6 November, U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) warned that the recent government shutdown and sequester are “eroding the foundation of scientific research in this country” and putting the United States at risk of not only falling behind the achievements of other countries but also of discouraging several generations of scientists.

In contrast, the House has split the original COMPETES act into two bills: the Enabling Innovation for Science, Technology, and Energy in America Act (or EINSTEIN America Act), which provides funding for the DOE’s office of Science, and the Keeping America FIRST (Federal Investments in Research, Science, and Technology) Act, which deals with funding for the NSF, NIST, OSTP, and other interagency STEM programs. While it does recognize the necessity of steady, reliable funding of DOE labs for maintaining the U.S. leadership role in basic STEM research, the EINSTEIN Act increases funding by only 1.7% in 2014 and 1% in 2015, which is inadequate even to deal with the cost of inflation.

The Keeping America FIRST draft places emphasis on oversight and accountability in spending, programs which encourage STEM education, particularly in K–12 grades, and ways of making technology transfer easier and more profitable. It does not, however, specify numbers for funding levels, and it contains several provisions seeking to add additional oversight to the NSF’s peer-review process, which could prove onerous and costly in terms of money and personnel. The first hearing for the EINSTEIN America Act was held on 30 October, and the hearing for Keeping America FIRST Act was held on 13 November.

In response, Democrats on the House Science Committee have released their own draft of a COMPETES Reauthorization that would authorize a 33.7% increase to the DOE’s Office of Science budget to $6.263 billion over five years. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) emphasized the disparity by noting that the Republican DOE funding levels “essentially amount to harmful cuts because they do not even keep up with the level of inflation for research.”

Reconciling multiple pieces of legislation may prove difficult, but it has been universally acknowledged that failing to reauthorize competitive levels of funding for STEM agencies will result in a stagnation of research and an “innovation deficit” (GSA Letter to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, 9 October 2013). The Geological Society of America strongly supports continued public investments in geoscience and other STEM research, particularly at the federal level, and continues to advocate for increased levels of support for basic scientific research (GSA Position Statement, Public Investment in Earth Science Research, April 2011). 

— Jessica Ball and Kasey White