Party politics crush US science spending bill
May 20, 2010 6 comments
A bill that would have significantly increased the research budgets of several key US government science agencies has become a victim of Washington's partisan politics. Yesterday, the House of Representatives rejected the $85bn America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, with advocates claiming they are "dismayed" the bill has become engulfed in party politics.
The original COMPETES act was passed by the House with a large bipartisan majority in 2007 and promised to roughly double R&D spending for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The reauthorization bill, which sought to renew the COMPETES act before it runs out in October this year, was drawn up by Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat, and Michigan Republican (and physicist) Vern Ehlers who both sit on the House Committee on Science and Technology.
However, when the bill reached the full House of Representatives on 22 April, Ralph Hall of Texas, who heads the committee's Republican minority, proposed a "motion to recommit" (MTR). This sought significant reductions in funding for any government agencies that had employees who were found to be watching pornography on government computers. As the NSF had disciplined some employees for doing just that late last year, it meant the foundation could receive less funding.
To then approve the initial bill, Democrats would have had to vote against the MTR and hence appear to support pornography. On 13 May the majority of the House voted therefore to return the bill to committee, effectively killing it. "This is a political action as opposed to a reflection on the actual passage of science funding," says Patrick Clemins, who analyses Congressional budgets at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
A statement by the American Physical Society on 14 May says that it is "dismayed" at the party politics being displayed. "The stakes are too high to put science on hold as our nation grapples with an extraordinary set of challenges that demand investments in research," it says. "Gutting the essence of the COMPETES reauthorization bill, as the MTR would do, puts our nation on the wrong path at the wrong time."
To give the bill a chance of passing, Gordon, who heads the House's science and technology committee, reintroduced the bill on 18 May in a slightly different form, reducing the period of the bill from five years to three, and agreeing to include Hall's wish that any agency found to be employing pornography-watching staff would have to give up grants to cover their salaries -- in effect sacking them. However, that action required that the House pass the bill by a two-thirds majority. Although legislators voted 261 to 148 in favor of it yesterday, the bill failed to pass by 12 votes.
Gordon insisted that he would not give up efforts to reauthorize COMPETES. "This bill is too important to let fall by the wayside," he says. Committee minority spokesman Zachary Kurz told Physics World that Hall does want to see the bill pass. "Mr Hall is very happy to work with the majority on some the concerns outlined in his motion to recommit," says Kurz." [But] he still has concerns on spending, first and foremost."
A failure to authorize the COMPETES act would not mean that these government agencies get no funding. "It is a kind of guidance as to how Congress sees where the funding is going," says Clemins. "It is not a nail in the coffin, but if will definitely make funding the science agencies more difficult."
About the author
Peter Gwynne is Physics World's North America correspondent