Senate, House Pass Science and Education Bills Despite Bush Administration's Qualms

Posted on May 1, 2007

The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved a sprawling bill last week to increase federal support for university research and education of scientists in order to enhance America's global economic competitiveness. The Bush administration had expressed "serious concerns" about the measure. The 88-to-8 vote was part of a flurry of legislative activity in Congress on the topic. Also last week, the House of Representatives' science committee approved a bill that endorses the goal of doubling the National Science Foundation's budget over 10 years. In addition, the full House approved two other bills on scientific research and education by large margins. Even if President Bush agrees to sign the science and education legislation finally produced by Congress, all of the bills debated last week would merely authorize increased spending for new programs, and would not provide any new dollars. Congress and the president would have to provide funds by enacting separate appropriations bills. That will be a continuing challenge as lawmakers try to reduce the federal deficit and pay for the war in Iraq. And Congress has already decided not to provide the full amount of appropriations authorized by the No Child Left Behind Act to improve schools. The shape of the final legislation on competitiveness that Congress might produce remains unclear because the House and Senate have taken very different approaches. The House is considering several narrowly focused bills, while the Senate chose to fold all of its proposals into a single, 208-page measure, S 761, that would create 20 new programs in several federal agencies. Eventually, negotiators from the two chambers will meet to resolve differences. Members of the new Democratic leadership in Congress, eager to make their mark, have promised quick action. Ideas From 'Gathering Storm' In statements sent to Congress last week, the White House raised objections about numerous aspects of the Senate and House bills, including cost. The administration estimated that the Senate bill would require $61-billion over the next four years, or $9-billion more than the president's set of proposals, called the American Competitiveness Initiative. The Senate measure included the major recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel convened by the National Academies in a 2005 report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future." The report forecast that America risks losing its scientific pre-eminence, and the economic benefits that brings, to rising powers like China and India. The document was widely credited with moving the issue to the top of Congress's agenda and generating bipartisan support. "This is the biggest piece of legislation in Congress this year because it goes right to the heart of how we keep our high standard of living," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican and former secretary of education who was one of the chief sponsors of the Senate bill. University and industry leaders have lobbied relentlessly for legislation, and higher-education groups have supported the resulting bills. For example, the budget-doubling bill approved by the House Committee on Science and Technology, HR 1867, contains a new NSF program to help young scientists refine their applications and reapply if they fail to land one of the agency's research grants. Because that bill has not yet reached the House floor, President Bush has not yet offered an official opinion about it. However, he has already endorsed a doubling of federal spending on physical-sciences research over 10 years, and Congress responded with the first installment in appropriations it approved for 2007. Narrower Focus in House The two bills that were overwhelmingly approved by the full House last week would expand federal financing for undergraduate and graduate students studying to become scientists, engineers, and science teachers. One of those measures, HR 363, would establish a new NSF scholarship program for undergraduates studying science and mathematics whose family income is under $75,000. The bill would also require the agency to spend a constant percentage of its research budget on two of its most important educational programs at the postbaccalaureate level. Those are the Faculty Early Career Development Program, which helps outstanding young faculty members establish research projects, and the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program, which supports students in interdisciplinary scientific fields. The proposal would increase financing for both programs more rapidly than Congress has done in recent years. The bill would also set a minimum level of $80,000 each for the faculty-career awards. In its statement on HR 363, the Bush administration objected that the spending formulas, by walling off a portion of the agency's budget, might prevent its managers from financing better proposals in the agency's other programs. The other bill passed by the House, HR 362, would authorize a 20-fold expansion in financing, to nearly $200-million by 2012, for the NSF's Robert Noyce Scholarship Program, which provides money to undergraduates who agree to work as science teachers in schools after graduation. In addition, the proposal authorizes greatly increasing NSF spending for summer institutes at universities offered to math and science schoolteachers to improve their knowledge and teaching skills. The White House commented that the Noyce program, begun in 2002, "is not yet mature enough to evaluate its impact on the efficacy or retention rate of program graduates" and that its expansion was "therefore inappropriate." A Doubling Over Five Years The Senate bill would go further than the House bills by authorizing a doubling of the NSF's budget over five years instead of a decade. In addition, it supports increased federal spending for college education in foreign languages. In its response, the White House said the Senate bill would set up too many new programs and divert resources from fundamental scientific research. The administration also criticized a provision of the bill that would set aside 8 percent of federal research-and-development spending for projects that it said were "too novel or span too diverse a range of disciplines to fare well in the traditional peer-review process." The administration said that provision would amount to "a new program of over $10-billion" and that "such a large earmark of the agencies' ongoing research efforts would certainly have negative, unintended consequences and could well impede the ability of these agencies to carry out their missions."