Legislative ideas

Lawmakers are considering packages that seek to boost science and technology research

The halls of Congress echo with talk about spending money to keep the United States competitive. Lawmakers have introduced about 10 bills that aim to stimulate innovation through greater federal investment in research and development. Bipartisan efforts in both houses gathered support last winter when the Bush administration released its fiscal 2007 budget proposal and an innovation agenda.

In his January State of the Union address, President Bush announced a commitment to expanded R&D in major scientific fields, including nanotechnology, supercomputing and alternative energy sources. The three-part program, called the American Competitiveness Initiative, would focus on research funding, education, job training and immigration policies. The initiative’s hallmark is a 10-year plan to double basic research funding at the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Energy Department’s Office of Science — three federal organizations deeply involved in scientific research.

The recent spurt of interest in innovation follows years in which industry and higher education institutions warned that U.S. jobs and national competitiveness would suffer if the federal government failed to support basic research in areas other than defense or homeland security.

Many current legislative proposals contain elements that support the administration’s plan, including increased R&D funding, a permanent R&D tax credit and incentives for improving math and science education.

However, House Democrats say the innovation bills should also address flaws in the president’s plan, which they argue cuts overall funding for the federal science and technology budget. Democrats also point out that the administration’s spending plan slashes job-creation programs. The budget provides no money for the Advanced Technology Program, for example, which awards grants to industry for high-risk research. Small and midsize manufacturers could suffer a 55 percent cut to the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a network of centers that provides resources to those companies.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the House Science Committee’s minority leader, said the Bush administration’s research agenda falls short. “The president’s budget proposal for doubling the research programs at NSF, the DOE Office of Science and the in-house program at NIST — which is supposed to increase support for research in the physical sciences and engineering — is accompanied by significant cuts to the science programs at NASA and the tech base budget of DOD, which are also major sponsors of such research,” Gordon said.

The chairman of the House Science Committee, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), raised concerns about proposed fiscal 2007 budgets for NASA and the

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NASA’s funding would remain essentially flat. NOAA’s R&D budget for oceanic and atmospheric research would drop 8 percent. In early April, Boehlert urged the Appropriations Committee to increase the funding levels for NASA and NOAA.

Boehlert promised that he would soon introduce legislation that addresses Bush’s innovation recommendations. The committee held a series of hearings in February and March to examine the president’s agenda, focusing especially on funding and education.

“While the final product has yet to take shape, math and science education at both the K-12 and undergraduate levels will be a key component,” Boehlert said.

Legislative action will not occur until later this month, committee staff members said. “The key is appropriations and ensuring that the American Competitiveness Initiative receives the president’s full [budget] request,” House Science Committee spokesman Joe Pouliot said. “Our main goal is doing whatever we can to make that happen. It all comes down to money.”

Gordon has introduced a package of three bills that target competitiveness in the classroom and workplace. The bills concentrate on elementary and secondary school science and math education, research into reducing foreign energy dependence and basic research funding at federal agencies. The provisions, introduced in late 2005, would require spending about $2.21 billion in fiscal 2007.

Gordon’s legislation and the president’s agenda evolved from recommendations in the National Academy of Sciences’ 2005 report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.”

In the report, a NAS committee and its leader, Norman Augustine, former Lockheed Martin chairman and chief executive officer, assessed the country’s research programs and the chances for future U.S. prosperity. Committee members wrote that they are “deeply concerned that the scientific and technical building blocks of our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength.” The report’s recommendations to restore R&D would cost about $8.6 billion in fiscal 2007. Gordon said the innovation portion of the president’s fiscal 2007 budget request might have been inspired by the NAS report, but the budget addresses only a limited number of the report’s recommendations.

The NAS report recommends the creation of a new agency modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Defense Department agency that created ArpaNet, which predated the Internet.

House Science Committee members held a hearing in March to discuss whether developing a new organization within DOE — dubbed ARPA-E — could advance U.S. energy competitiveness. Several innovation bills promote ARPA-E as a program that could help wean the country of its dependence on foreign oil.

Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) introduced an R&D package in January that authorizes the creation of ARPA-E. That package, the Protect America’s Competitive Edge Act, includes three bills to implement the NAS report recommendations. Its focus is to promote elementary and secondary school science and math education, create ARPA-E and provide financial incentives for innovation. It would double the R&D tax credit and create a tax credit for employers who invest in employees’ education. The package of bills would cost $9 billion in its first year.

A separate House Republican bill would increase innovation in industry and health care. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Republican High-Tech Working Group, introduced the Innovation and Competitiveness Act in March. Its objective is bolstering U.S. economic competitiveness in the global marketplace.

That legislation would primarily support industry R&D efforts. Its provisions include reforming the legal system to shield small businesses from frivolous lawsuits and expanding the R&D tax credit. The bill would limit state taxes that interfere with online commerce. It would provide incentives for businesses to implement health IT systems, such as interoperable health IT networks, to increase efficiency and reduce health care’s financial burden.

The legislation addresses education by authorizing loan forgiveness for math and science teachers and funding new science master’s degree programs.

House Democrats, however, say Goodlatte’s legislation falls short in several areas. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House minority leader, said the plan fails to reduce the country’s dependence on oil or offer immigration reforms to ensure that the brightest foreign scientists and technologists can contribute to U.S. innovation.

The sheer number of innovation bills now on Capitol Hill indicates that action on some of them is possible, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) said. In December 2005, Ensign and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) announced a bill based on the Council on Competitiveness’ “Innovate America” report. That bill, titled the National Innovation Act, would encourage federal agencies to allocate 3 percent of their R&D budgets for grants for innovative, high-risk research.

Like many innovation proposals, it would make the R&D tax credit permanent and expand the number of companies eligible to claim it. But unlike the president’s plan, the bill would nearly double research funding for NSF by fiscal 2011. The Ensign/Lieberman plan would cost about $6.5 billion in fiscal 2007.

Proof of conceptThe National Science Foundation gives grants for basic research that has commercial potential. Here are several discoveries that NSF grants supported:

  • Nanowires that generate electricity when vibrated slightly. The wires could be used in medical implants and smart apparel. Body movement could provide enough vibration to elicit electrical charges. Each fiber is no more than 40 billionths of a meter in diameter, and many are smaller. The findings appear in the April 14, 2006, issue of the journal Science.

  • A single-molecule diode that could make computer chips infinitely smaller than they are today. Diodes are essential components of computer, audio and other electronic devices. If manufacturers could use single-molecule diodes instead of traditional diodes, they could dramatically reduce chip sizes. The technology is a few tens of atoms in size and 1,000 times smaller than traditional diodes. Findings appear in the March 10 issue of Physical Review Letters.

  • Tiny, hollow capsules made of lipids that collapse when cooled below body temperature. The discovery could improve drug delivery. The collapsing capsule squeezes out the pill’s contents in a controlled manner. Capsules range from 10 to 100 micrometers — or millionths of a meter — wide. Scientists are discussing potential applications with a cosmetics company. For medical applications, researchers must first find a way to cool the pills without damaging surrounding body tissue. Findings appear in the Feb. 17 issue of Physical Review Letters.

  • A gigantic centrifuge that illustrates the effects of Hurricane Katrina-like forces on the New Orleans levee system. Researchers subjected a scaled-down model of the 17th Street Canal levee, complete with local peat, to Katrina-like conditions using the 150 g-ton centrifuge. G-ton refers to the centrifuge’s maximum payload defined as the payload weight multiplied by g-forces applied. Findings suggested that sliding earth along a weak clay layer beneath the levee contributed to its collapse. Researchers presented their preliminary findings March 20 in New Orleans at a public meeting hosted by the National Academies committee that is reviewing the study.

    — Aliya Sternstein

  • NSF seeks to award additional grantsThe National Science Foundation supports research through its grants program that often leads to scientific breakthroughs, but the agency might need more money quickly to keep America competitive.

    Industry and academic experts have often said that continued flat funding for NSF endangers innovation and U.S. economic prospects.

    Now, President Bush and Congress are discussing legislation that would double NSF’s funding in the next decade. The administration’s American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), which the president unveiled in January, would double the budgets for NSF, the Energy Department’s Office of Science and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, in 10 years.

    The president requested $6.02 billion dollars for fiscal 2007, a 7.9 percent increase from 2006 funding levels, NSF officials said.

    NSF is responsible for funding university and other academic research in the physical sciences, including the fields of nanotechnology, information technology, chemistry, mathematics and engineering. About 10,000 new awards are granted each year. Appropriations for the president’s agenda would support as many as 500 more research grants in fiscal 2007.

    “The big thing about ACI for NSF is the doubling of our budget over 10 years,” NSF spokesman Randy Vines said. “We will be able to do what we were going to do anyway, but now we have more budget to apply to it.”

    In February, NSF Director Arden Bement Jr. said the Bush administration’s plan is to spend more on basic research. “There has been a lot of rhetoric about doubling the NSF budget, but now the administration is behind it,” he said. “The FY 2007 budget request is the first installment. We are grateful to the administration for its recognition and leadership.”

    Funding for cyber-infrastructure research and development would reach $597 million in fiscal 2007, a 15 percent increase. NSF would invest $50 million to begin acquiring a supercomputer capable of petascale-level processing.

    — Aliya Sternstein

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