Senate committee signs off on innovation bill

A Senate committee has approved innovation legislation that would direct federal agencies to allocate 8 percent of their research and development budgets to grants for high-risk research.

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) had introduced the bill, titled the National Innovation Act, in December. It is based on the Council on Competitiveness’ “Innovate America” report.

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation unanimously approved the bill by a vote of 21-0.

In some ways, the bill is more aggressive than President Bush’s newly unveiled competitiveness agenda. Unlike the president’s 10-year initiative to double basic research funding at the National Science Foundation, the Innovation Act would nearly double research funding for NSF by fiscal 2011.

Ensign, chairman of the Commerce Committee’s Technology, Innovation, and Competitiveness Subcommittee, stated, “The United States cannot afford to sit by as countries around the globe work to produce more engineers, create better technology and outpace us in innovation.”

The bill increases authorized funding for NSF from $6.4 billion in fiscal 2007 to $11.4 billion in fiscal 2011.

In addition, the legislation requires the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study every four years to identify potential barriers to innovation.

Separately, House Science Committee members introduced three competitiveness bills last week aimed at enhancing education and research.

Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) stated, "As a nation, we must do everything possible to remain competitive, and that starts with ensuring that we have the best scientists and engineers in the world. That won't be the case if we don't invest more and more wisely in attracting the best teachers, in teacher training, in improving undergraduate education, and in funding bright, young researchers with the most creative ideas."

One of these bills, the Science and Mathematics Education for Competitiveness Act, expands an NSF program that provides scholarships to college students who commit to teaching in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields after graduation. The legislation would also authorize education programs at the Energy Department and then require DOE to inventory and evaluate these education programs.

Another proposal, the Early Career Research Act, would set aside 3.5 percent of NSF’s research funding to help young faculty members pursue their goals. NSF would provide grants of at least $80,000 for up to five years to help researchers establish a lab. The legislation authorizes $25 million for a similar program at DOE for each of fiscal years 2007 through 2011.

The third piece of legislation, the Research for Competitiveness Act, would encourage early career researchers to seek funding from industry. Under the program, NSF and DOE would offer $50,000 grants for up to five years -- and additionally match up to $50,000 of funds the researcher obtains from private industry.

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