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May 19, 2006

Senate Commerce Committee Approves Key Innovation Authorization; Commits to a Hearing on Computing

The Senate Commerce Committee unanimously approved a bill yesterday that would increase the authorization for two key science agencies, create a new program of "Innovation Acceleration Grants" at federal agencies, create a council to oversee basic research efforts at NASA, and direct the National Academies to study "forms of risk that create barriers to innovation."

The committee approved the bill -- the "American Innovation and Competitiveness Act" (S. 2802), introduced by Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) -- by a vote of 21-0 after a compromise was reached on a controversial amendment introduced by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). The amendment originally proposed by Hutchison would have directed NSF to place priority on funding efforts in "the physical and natural sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics" that would help meet "critical national needs in innovation and competitiveness." The proposed amendment was seen as an attack on the social sciences by many in the science community and some of the members of the committee. Hutchison has not been a particular fan of social science research at NSF in recent years. Inside Higher Ed reports that in a hearing earlier this year, Hutchison called social science research a "burden" on NSF that is distracting from the goal of technological competitiveness.

Hutchison reiterated her feeling that Congress should “focus on science and technology” because “we are responding to a crisis in our country.” Hutchison added that she is “not against social sciences being part of the NSF budget,” but that “I want to make sure we focus on the mission we are after.” Hutchison appeared to be using a broad definition of social science when she noted that biology, geology, economics, and archaeology are worthy pursuits, but can often stray from the innovation and competitiveness path.

She again cited specific NSF funded social science studies that she thinks should not be funded by the foundation. “I object to the study of … the impact of global changes on 300 women workers in Bangladesh,” she said. “I want good social science research,” she adding, noting endeavors like the development of digital technology for teaching children.

Amidst pressure from other members of the committee, including Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) who proposed language that would strip the Hutchison language, and members of the science community (who objected not only to the attack on a particular discipline, but to the idea of congressional micromanagement of NSF), Hutchison modified her amendment. Instead of prioritizing research in the physical and natural sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (a broad collection of disciplines which Hutchison intended to include computer science as well), the modified amendment directs NSF to "include consideration of the degree to which awards and research activities may assist in meeting critical national needs in innovation and competitiveness." The amendment also contains the limitation:
Nothing in this section shall be construed to restrict or bias the grant selection process against funding other areas of research deemed by the Foundation to be consistent with its mandate, nor to change the core mission of the Foundation.

Other provisions in the bill include language that would direct NSF to provide grants to community colleges to establish apprenticeship programs for women pursuing technical training, and to create a mentoring program for women in science, and technology, engineering and math (included in the bill as an amendment by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI)); and another to establish a "President's Council on Innovation and Competitiveness" to "develop a comprehensive agenda to promote innovation in the public and private sectors."

One amendment proposed but not included in the bill would have inserted the text of H.R. 28, the "High Performance Computing Revitalization Act," that passed the House in April of last year. We've covered H.R. 28 previously in this space, and joined with USACM in endorsing the measure. However, Cantwell's amendment faced some resistance from Ensign for reasons that aren't completely clear, but appear to be technical in nature. Apparently a provision in H.R. 28 that would call on PITAC (which still existed as a separate committee at the time of the bill's passage in the House) to review the state of the federal IT R&D portfolio every two years was problematic -- perhaps because the committee has now been folded into PCAST. In any case, as a compromise, Ensign committed to holding a hearing in the "near future" on H.R. 28 -- which has languished in the Senate for more than a year without action -- and the importance of high-performance computing to innovation. In return, Cantwell withdrew her amendment.

This is actually a positive development for the computing community, I think. H.R. 28, while a good bill, could use some tweaking -- including addressing the issue with PITAC -- and the discipline could surely use the additional exposure to be gained from a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on our issues. CRA will of course do what we can to help the committee prepare for the hearing and we'll have more details as they come available.

In the meantime, here's some additional coverage of the markup yesterday:

  • Committee press release
  • Coverage from Inside Higher Ed

    Posted by PeterHarsha at May 19, 2006 09:01 AM
    Posted to American Competitiveness Initiative | Funding | Policy